Maternal instincts lead to the social life of bees

Social life of bees: Once isolated, behavior plays a role in selecting genes for social contact

TORONTO, February 26, 2021 – A new study from the University of York finds that maternal childcare is one of the behavioral drivers that have led some species of bees to enjoy an ever-expanding social life throughout evolutionary history.

By virtue of being in a social group, the genome itself may respond by choosing more social genes than antisocial genes. Behavior and the social environment come first, paving the way for future molecular evolution.

In addition, the researchers found that similar genetic evolution occurred independently in different species at different times, indicating a unifying principle leading to the same social trait.

“There seems to be something about social specifically driving the genome to evolve in this way. It is a very interesting discovery that was previously reported only in ants and honey bees,” says lead researcher Professor Sandra Rayhaan of the College of Science.

Rehan and her team looked at 16 different species of bees across three different origins of eusociality – the transition from solitary to social life where bees or other species live in a multigenerational group cooperatively caring for offspring in which there is a reproductive division of labor.

They also sequenced the genomes of six carpenter bee species – one from North America, three from Australia, one from Japan and the other from Kenya – to see how social networking affects the evolution of their genome. They found that caring for the young in a group led in many cases to the choice of social gene regulation rather than non-social gene regulation.

“When we see the rise of queens and workers in a complex social community, we tend to see an increase in more complex genomic signatures, rates of evolution in genomes, but also complexity of genome structure,” says Rehan. “We know very little about how society has evolved.”
Most bees are solitary, but some, like honey and carpenter bees, have moved on to being social. In general, though, social contact is relatively rare in the animal kingdom and in bees.

We try to understand how life evolved from simple to complex. We are mostly interested in how they got there. By studying these types of intermediate groups and simple societies, we can really pose this question empirically, ”Rayhan says.

“It gives us a window into the evolution of complexity and behavior on a large scale. We can study it in practice in insects and bees because they show remarkable diversity in behavior, but it gives us insight into all animals, including ourselves.”

The research was published today in the journal Nature. Communication Biology.


York University is a modern, multi-campus urban university located in Toronto, Ontario. Supported by a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners, we provide a unique global perspective to help solve societal challenges, drive positive change, and prepare our students for success. Glendon University’s bilingual campus in York is home to the Southern Ontario Center of Excellence for French and bilingual post-secondary education. York University campuses in Costa Rica and India offer students exceptional transnational learning opportunities and innovative programs. Together, we can make things right for our communities, planet, and future.

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Sandra McLean
York University media relations,
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