In the same week that researchers published a paper suggesting there is no evolutionary advantage to selfishness, another team published a study suggesting bees will selflessly serve their colony to the bitter end, even in the absence of a queen.
Even in the hopeless situation of colony collapse disorder, queenless honeybees have been shown to demonstrate remarkable altruism, actively feeding and defending a doomed hive.
Researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and the University of Illinois report that the new insight into the behavior of honeybees reveals "surprising plasticity in animal social organization" and could offer a new perspective on the evolution of primitive animal societies before the role of queen emerged.
Macquarie's Andrew Barron and his colleagues knew honey bee colonies thrive via a single reproductive queen attended to by thousands of worker bees, but the researchers were keen to study the reactions and behavior of the colony when the queen dies.
"As concern over global colony collapse continues, it's important that we look at societal structures carefully, to more accurately model behaviors," Barron said.
"We've studied bees so intensely, but no-one's kept watching after the queen bee has died. Now for the first time, we can see that in a hopeless, queenless colony -- the terminal phase -- honeybees continue to work together to defend the colony, forage and feed each other. Altruism persists, despite earlier assumptions to the contrary," he said.
In the absence of a queen, worker bees were observed taking on the role of laying eggs and raising male drones.
Observing altruism in a failing colony came as a surprise to Barron and his colleagues; they assumed that without a queen the worker bees would prioritize their own reproduction over colony care.
"Although selfish behavior did increase, we saw that altruism did not decrease," Barron said.
"The colonies effectively became worker communes -- collective societies where bees became generalists, maintaining and defending the colony together, to the end."
Barron added that the research also provides a snapshot into primitive, queenless bee societies, before the role of the queen evolved to be the most successful organizational structure for colonies.
Barron and his colleagues' research is published in the journal Current Biology.
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