Genome-wide analysis of alternative reproductive phenotypes in honeybee workers


Dries Cardoen, Fax: +32 16 32 39 02; E-mail:


A defining feature of social insects is the reproductive division of labour, in which workers usually forego all reproduction to help their mother queen to reproduce. However, little is known about the molecular basis of this spectacular form of altruism. Here, we compared gene expression patterns between nonreproductive, altruistic workers and reproductive, non-altruistic workers in queenless honeybee colonies using a whole-genome microarray analysis. Our results demonstrate massive differences in gene expression patterns between these two sets of workers, with a total of 1292 genes being differentially expressed. In nonreproductive workers, genes associated with energy metabolism and respiration, flight and foraging behaviour, detection of visible light, flight and heart muscle contraction and synaptic transmission were overexpressed relative to reproductive workers. This implies they probably had a higher whole-body energy metabolism and activity rate and were most likely actively foraging, whereas same-aged reproductive workers were not. This pattern is predicted from evolutionary theory, given that reproductive workers should be less willing to compromise their reproductive futures by carrying out high-risk tasks such as foraging or other energetically expensive tasks. By contrast, reproductive workers mainly overexpressed oogenesis-related genes compared to nonreproductive ones. With respect to key switches for ovary activation, several genes involved in steroid biosynthesis were upregulated in reproductive workers, as well as genes known to respond to queen and brood pheromones, genes involved in TOR and insulin signalling pathways and genes located within quantitative trait loci associated with reproductive capacity in honeybees. Overall, our results provide unique insight into the molecular mechanisms underlying alternative reproductive phenotypes in honeybee workers.