Bigger is better: implications of body size for flight ability under different light conditions and the evolution of alloethism in bumblebees


  • Handling Editor: Frank Messina

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  • 1In social insects, reproductive success and survival of the colony critically depend on the colony's ability to efficiently allocate workers to the various tasks which need to be performed. In bumblebees, workers show a large variation of body size within a colony. Large workers tend to leave the nest and forage for nectar and pollen, whereas small workers stay inside the nest and fulfill nest duties. It was speculated that size-related differences of the sensory system might contribute to alloethism found in bumblebee colonies.
  • 2In the first part, we investigated how body size determines eye morphology. We measured several eye parameters of Bombus terrestris workers and drones. In both, workers and drones, larger individuals had larger eyes with larger facet diameters, more ommatidia and larger ocelli. At similar body size, drones exhibited larger eyes and ocelli compared to workers. Due to theoretical considerations, we predict that large individuals with large eyes should be better able to operate in illumination conditions of lower intensity than small individuals, since ommatidial sensitivity is proportional to the square of facet diameter.
  • 3In the second part, we tested this prediction. In a behavioural experiment, we first caught bumblebees of various sizes in the field and then determined the lowest light intensity level at which they are just able to fly under controlled laboratory conditions. We tested workers of B. terrestris and B. pascuorum, and workers and drones of B. lapidarius. Large bumblebees were able to fly under lower light levels compared to small bees, with light intensity thresholds ranging from 1·1 to 5·5 lux.
  • 4Our results indicate that the increased light sensitivity of the visual system of large bumblebees allows them to fly under poor light conditions, for example, very early in the morning or late at dusk. This is of potential benefit to the survival of a bumblebee colony since flowers that open early in the morning usually have accumulated a relatively high amount of nectar and pollen throughout the night, and large bumblebees can utilize these resources earlier than most other bees. Thus, our findings have important implications for the understanding of the functional significance and evolution of alloethism in bumblebee colonies.