Molecular heterochrony and the evolution of sociality in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris)

S. Hollis Woodard, Guy M. Bloch, Mark R. Band, Gene E. Robinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Sibling care is a hallmark of social insects, but its evolution remains challenging to explain at the molecular level. The hypothesis that sibling care evolved from ancestral maternal care in primitively eusocial insects has been elaborated to involve heterochronic changes in gene expression. This elaboration leads to the prediction that workers in these species will show patterns of gene expression more similar to foundress queens, who express maternal care behaviour, than to established queens engaged solely in reproductive behaviour. We tested this idea in bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) using a microarray platform with approximately 4500 genes. Unlike the wasp Polistes metricus, in which support for the above prediction has been obtained, we found that patterns of brain gene expression in foundress and queen bumblebees were more similar to each other than to workers. Comparisons of differentially expressed genes derived from this study and gene lists from microarray studies in Polistes and the honeybee Apis mellifera yielded a shared set of genes involved in the regulation of related social behaviours across independent eusocial lineages. Together, these results suggest that multiple independent evolutions of eusociality in the insects might have involved different evolutionary routes, but nevertheless involved some similarities at the molecular level.

Original languageAmerican English
Article number20132419
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1780
StatePublished - 19 Feb 2014


  • Bumblebees
  • Cooperative brood care
  • Eusociality
  • Gene expression
  • Microarrays


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