Reproductive plasticity in bumblebee workers (Bombus terrestris) - Reversion from fertility to sterility under queen influence

Cédric Alaux*, Malvina Boutot, Pierre Jaisson, Abraham Hefetz

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Worker sterility in the bumblebee Bombus terrestris is conditional and is linked to the social development of the colony. Workers refrain from reproducing or overtly challenging the queen until gyne production has initiated, at the so-called competition point (CP). It is not known whether this behavior is hard-wired or workers show reproductive plasticity. It also remains unclear whether worker reproductive decision is under queen and/or worker control. In this study, we tested worker reproductive plasticity in an attempt to assess whether and under which conditions worker sterility/fertility are reversible. We introduced egg-laying workers into colonies with different social structures for 1 week then monitored their reproductive status. We revealed a remarkable reproductive plasticity in the introduced workers that was social-condition- dependent. In the presence of a pre-CP queen, the introduced workers reverted to sterility, whereas in the presence of a post-CP queen, such workers remained egg-layer. Reversion to sterility does not occur when direct contact with the queen is prevented, as the introduced workers remained egg-layer in the queenright colonies with a confined queen. Egg-laying workers that were introduced into queenless colonies mostly maintained their fertility regardless of colony social phase. This shows that worker transition from cooperative to selfish behavior is reversible depending on the social context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)213-222
Number of pages10
JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2007


  • Bombus terrestris
  • Queen control
  • Queen signal
  • Reproductive plasticity
  • Social insects
  • Worker reproduction


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