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Honeybees With Male Genes Reproduce Themselves

Jan 15, 2016 03:17 PM EST
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Worker honey bees with living mothers -- the queen -- seem more altruistic because of those mother genes, or matrigenes. But when the queen dies and their fathers' genes (patrigenes) begin to lead, they become ruthless competitors, says a new study led by Pennsylvania State University.

This provides support for a long-existing theory about kin selection--with the idea being that "giving" behavior is one way to transfer maternal genes to the following generation.

"We usually think of honey bees as ideal cooperators, with all the members of the colony working together harmoniously," Christina Grozinger, entomology professor at Penn State said in a release. "Our studies demonstrate that there is actually conflict--called intragenomic conflict--among the genes inherited from the father and those inherited from the mother."

The structure for all this altruism in a normal colony is that the workers remain sterile and contribute all their efforts to bringing up other offspring of the queen. After a queen's death, things can happen in two ways: Either workers remain altruistic, or they begin to reproduce themselves -- they activate their ovaries and lay unfertilized eggs. The eggs produce males.

In 2003, researcher David Queller posted a model showing, basically, this: All workers have the same set of matrigenes from their mother, the queen. But they have different patrigenes because the queen mated with 10 or more male bees. If a worker helps to raise her sister workers, she helps pass on the matrigenes. But if she acts on her own and reproduces herself, more of her patrigenes go on to the next generation.The patrigenes would promote selfish behavior, according to a statement

In this recent study at Penn State, researchers were able to use modern genomic testing for the first time to prove the 2003 model. The results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"It is very strange to think that your genes might be fighting with each other based on whether they came from your mother or your father," Queller said in the release. "Yet, this is just what we found. It turns out that when a queen dies, worker bees behave the way their fathers want them to, producing sons when possible."

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-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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