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The queen is dead—long live the workers: intraspecific parasitism by workers in the stingless bee Melipona scutellaris


Denise Alves, Fax: +55 11 30917533; E-mail:


Insect societies are well known for their high degree of cooperation, but their colonies can potentially be exploited by reproductive workers who lay unfertilized, male eggs, rather than work for the good of the colony. Recently, it has also been discovered that workers in bumblebees and Asian honeybees can succeed in entering and parasitizing unrelated colonies to produce their own male offspring. The aim of this study was to investigate whether such intraspecific worker parasitism might also occur in stingless bees, another group of highly social bees. Based on a large-scale genetic study of the species Melipona scutellaris, and the genotyping of nearly 600 males from 45 colonies, we show that ∼20% of all males are workers’ sons, but that around 80% of these had genotypes that were incompatible with them being the sons of workers of the resident queen. By tracking colonies over multiple generations, we show that these males were not produced by drifted workers, but rather by workers that were the offspring of a previous, superseded queen. This means that uniquely, workers reproductively parasitize the next-generation workforce. Our results are surprising given that most colonies were sampled many months after the previous queen had died and that workers normally only have a life expectancy of ∼30 days. It also implies that reproductive workers greatly outlive all other workers. We explain our results in the context of kin selection theory, and the fact that it pays workers more from exploiting the colony if costs are carried by less related individuals.