Bees take unconventional parentage to the extreme

  Last updated November 29, 2018 at 9:46 am


Flexibility in reproduction may be a key to colony survival.

With bees, gender is a spectrum. Credit: Konstantina Sergianni / EyeEm

Some honeybees have what could politely be described as novel parental origins, according to new Australian research.

We’re talking “sex mosaics”, with combinations of up to four parents per bee. A team of scientists from the University of Sydney found bees with two fathers, others with two mothers, and one with two fathers and no mother, arising from the fusion of two sperm.

And that’s from a study group of just 11.

All were gynandromorphs – organisms containing both male and female tissue. The researchers, led by Sarah Aamidor, estimate such forms make up as much as 2% of beehive populations.

In a paper published in the journal Royal Society Biology Letters, Aamidor and colleagues say their findings reveal flexibility for social insect reproduction and potentially novel colony-level social structures.

“Our study reveals previously unreported developmental pathways and complex parental origins,” they write.

Bees and other members of the order Hymenoptera, primarily wasps and ants, are said to be “haplodiploid”, which means females come from fertilised eggs, while males hatch from unfertilised ones and have no father.

The researchers say their work emphasises the range of developmental variants that can occur in haplodiploid organisms that nonetheless result in viable adults.

“Haplodiploidy allows almost any combination of gametes present in an egg … to fuse and form a zygote or not fuse and develop independently as haploid tissue,” they write.


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About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is the Editorial Manager for the Royal Institution of Australia.

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