Proximate influence on eusocial caste behaviour
Queens and workers of eusocial sweat bee species are morphologically and developmentally similar, which means that each female is capable of behaving as a queen or a worker. However, few females lay eggs and behave as queens, while the majority of females provision the queen’s offspring, rarely lay eggs, and behave as workers. This makes eusocial sweat bee species, such as Lasioglossum laevissimum, excellent models to study the underling environmental (social) and genetic factors that contribute to variation in caste behaviours. My research focused on describing some of the proximate mechanisms that influence caste behaviours in L. laevissimum females. The social environment of a sweat bee colony, specifically the behaviour of a queen, can have a dramatic impact on worker behaviour. Queens suppress worker reproduction by physically bullying their workers. In a nesting aggregation at Brock University, almost half of L. laevissimum nests became queenless, which provided me with a natural experiment to assess the direct influence by queens on worker behaviour. Dissection data showed that a small proportion (17%) of workers developed their ovaries in both queenright and queenless nests. This suggests that L. laevissimum queens exert an early, negative, and strong influence on worker egg-laying behaviour, which lasts after she is gone. Next I assessed the relationship between gene expression and L. laeivsismum caste behaviours. I predicited that queens would express a gene associated with egg-laying, vitellogenin, more than workers, and that workers would express genes associated with foraging, the foraging gene, more than queens. Lasioglossum laevissimum queens had higher vitellogenin expression levels than workers, and females with high ovarian development had high vitellogenin expression, regardless of caste. On the other hand, queens and workers had similar foraging expression levels. Gene expression comparisons between queens and workers highlight two important behavioural characteristics of sweat bee castes. First, in eusocial sweat bees, both queens and workers actively provision brood at some point during the breeding season, which is reflected in their similar foraging expression levels. Secondly, queens lay eggs while a small proportion of workers have queen-like ovarian development, reflected in vitellogenin expression differences between castes.