Larger workers outperform smaller workers across resource environments: an evaluation of demographic data using functional linear models

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1. Behavior and organization of social groups is thought to be vital to the functioning of societies, yet the contributions of various roles within social groups towards population growth and dynamics have been difficult to quantify. A common approach to quantifying these role-based contributions is evaluating the number of individuals conducting certain roles, which ignores how behavior might scale up to effects at the population-level. Manipulative experiments are another common approach to determine population-level effects, but they often ignore potential feedbacks associated with these various roles. 2. Here, we evaluate the effects of worker size distribution in bumblebee colonies on worker production in 24 observational colonies across three environments, using functional linear models. Functional linear models are an underused correlative technique that has been used to assess lag effects of environmental drivers on plant performance. We demonstrate potential applications of this technique for exploring high-dimensional ecological systems, such as the contributions of individuals with different traits to colony dynamics. 3. We found that more larger workers had mostly positive effects and more smaller workers had negative effects on worker production. Most of these effects were only detected under low or fluctuating resource environments suggesting that the advantage of colonies with larger-bodied workers becomes more apparent under stressful conditions. 4. We also demonstrate the wider ecological application of functional linear models. We highlight the advantages and limitations when considering these models, and how they are a valuable complement to many of these performance-based and manipulative experiments.

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Conditions experienced early in development can affect the future performance of individuals and populations. Demographic theories predict persistent population impacts of past resources, but few studies have experimentally tested such carry‐over effects across generations or cohorts. We used bumble bees to test whether resource timing had persistent effects on within‐colony dynamics over sequential cohorts of workers. We simulated a resource pulse for field colonies either early or late in their development and estimated colony growth rates during pulse‐ and non‐pulse periods. During periods when resources were not supplemented, early‐pulse colonies grew faster than late‐pulse colonies; early‐pulse colonies grew larger as a result. These results reveal persistent effects of past resources on current growth and support the importance of transient dynamics in natural ecological systems. Early‐pulse colonies also produced more queen offspring, highlighting the critical nature of resource timing for the population, as well as colony, dynamics of a key pollinator.
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