1. Workers in several bee species travel to conspecific nests (‘drifting’), enter them, and produce male offspring inside them, so acting as intra-specific social parasites. This adds a new dimension to bees' reproductive behaviour and spatial ecology, but the extent to which drifting occurs over field scales, i.e. at natural nest densities in field conditions, has been unclear.
2. Using the bumble bee Bombus terrestris (Linnaeus) as a model system, we sought to determine rates of worker drifting at field scales and the frequency of potential drifter workers in wild nests.
3. A field experiment with 27 colonies showed that workers travelled to, and became accepted in, conspecific nests that were up to 60 m away, although the number of accepted drifter workers within nests fell significantly with distance. The rate at which nests were entered by drifters was relatively high and significantly exceeded the rate at which drifters became accepted.
4. Microsatellite genotyping of eight field-collected nests from Greater London, U.K., showed that a low frequency (3%) of workers were not full sisters of nestmate workers and hence were likely to have been drifter workers.
5. It is therefore concluded that workers can drift to conspecific nests over field scales and confirmed that successful drifting occurs in natural populations. Drifting appears to be a natural but low-frequency behaviour permitting B. terrestris workers to gain direct fitness.