Costs of reproduction are present but latent in eusocial bumblebee queens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)


Background: The standard evolutionary theory of ageing proposes that ageing occurs because of a trade-off between reproduction and longevity. Eusocial insect queens exhibit positive fecundity-longevity associations and so have been suggested to be counter-examples through not expressing costs of reproduction and through remodelling conserved genetic and endocrine networks regulating ageing and reproduction. If so, eusocial evolution from solitary ancestors with negative fecundity-longevity associations must have involved a stage at which costs of reproduction were suppressed and fecundity and longevity became positively associated. Using the bumblebee (Bombus terrestris), we experimentally tested whether queens in annual eusocial insects at an intermediate level of eusocial complexity experience costs of reproduction, and, using mRNA-seq, the extent to which they exhibit a remodelling of relevant genetic and endocrine networks. Specifically, we tested whether costs of reproduction are present but latent, or whether a remodelling of relevant genetic and endocrine networks has already occurred allowing queens to reproduce without costs.

Results: We experimentally increased queens’ costs of reproduction by removing their eggs, which caused queens to increase their egg-laying rate. Treatment queens had significantly reduced longevity relative to control queens whose egg-laying rate was not increased. Reduced longevity in treatment queens was not caused by increased worker-to-queen aggression or by increased overall activity in queens. In addition, treatment and control queens differed in age-related gene expression based on mRNA-seq in both their overall expression profiles and the expression of ageing-related genes. Remarkably, these differences appeared to occur principally with respect to relative age, not chronological age.

Conclusions: This study represents the first simultaneously phenotypic and transcriptomic experimental test for a longevity cost of reproduction in eusocial insect queens. The results support the occurrence of costs of reproduction in annual eusocial insects of intermediate social complexity and suggest that reproductive costs are present but latent in queens of such species, i.e. that these queens exhibit condition-dependent positive fecundity-longevity associations. They also raise the possibility that a partial remodelling of genetic and endocrine networks underpinning ageing may have occurred in intermediately eusocial species such that, in unmanipulated conditions, age-related gene expression depends more on chronological than relative age.
Original languageEnglish
Article number153
JournalBMC Biology
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 2023


  • Age-related gene expression
  • Bombus terrestris
  • Costs of reproduction
  • Eusociality
  • Evolutionary theory of ageing
  • mRNA-seq

Cite this