Sperm use economy of honeybee (Apis mellifera) queens

doi: 10.1002/ece3.2075


The queens of eusocial ants, bees, and wasps only mate during a very brief period early in life to acquire and store a lifetime supply of sperm. As sperm cannot be replenished, queens have to be highly economic when using stored sperm to fertilize eggs, especially in species with large and long-lived colonies. However, queen fertility has not been studied in detail, so that we have little understanding of how economic sperm use is in different species, and whether queens are able to influence their sperm use. This is surprising given that sperm use is a key factor of eusocial life, as it determines the fecundity and longevity of queens and therefore colony fitness. We quantified the number of sperm that honeybee (Apis mellifera) queens use to fertilize eggs. We examined sperm use in naturally mated queens of different ages and in queens artificially inseminated with different volumes of semen. We found that queens are remarkably efficient and only use a median of 2 sperm per egg fertilization, with decreasing sperm use in older queens. The number of sperm in storage was always a significant predictor for the number of sperm used per fertilization, indicating that queens use a constant ratio of spermathecal fluid relative to total spermathecal volume of 2.364 × 10−6 to fertilize eggs. This allowed us to calculate a lifetime fecundity for honeybee queens of around 1,500,000 fertilized eggs. Our data provide the first empirical evidence that honeybee queens do not manipulate sperm use, and fertilization failures in worker-destined eggs are therefore honest signals that workers can use to time queen replacement, which is crucial for colony performance and fitness.

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