A morphologically Specialized Soldier Caste Improves Colony Defense In A Neotropical Eusocial BeeChristoph Grütera, Cristiano Menezesb, Vera L. Imperatriz-Fonsecab and Francis L. W. Ratnieksa
Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, School of Life Sciences, University of Sussex, Falmer BN1 9QG, United Kingdom; and
Faculdade de Filosofia, Ciências e Letras de Ribeirão Preto–University of São Paulo, Monte Alegre, CEP 14040-901, Ribeirão Preto, SP, Brazil
1182–1186 | PNAS | January 24, 2012 | vol. 109 | no. 4
Division of labor among workers is common in insect societies and is thought to be important in their ecological success. In most species, division of labor is based on age (temporal castes), but workers in some ants and termites show morphological specialization for particular tasks (physical castes). Large-headed soldier ants and termites are well-known examples of this specialization. However, until now there has been no equivalent example of physical worker subcastes in social bees or wasps. Here we provide evidence for a physical soldier subcaste in a bee. In the neotropical stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula, nest defense is performed by two groups of guards, one hovering near the nest entrance and the other standing on the wax entrance tube. We show that both types of guards are 30% heavier than foragers and of different shape; foragers have relatively larger heads, whereas guards have larger legs. Low variation within each subcaste results in negligible size overlap between guards and foragers, further indicating that they are distinct physical castes. In addition, workers that remove garbage from the nest are of intermediate size, suggesting that they might represent another unrecognized caste. Guards or soldiers are reared in low but sufficient numbers (1–2% of emerging workers), considering that <1% usually perform this task. When challenged by the obligate robber bee Lestrimelitta limao, an important natural enemy, larger workers were able to fight for longer before being defeated by the much larger robber. This discovery opens up opportunities for the comparative study of physical castes in social insects, including the question of why soldiers appear to be so much rarer in bees than in ants or termites.