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Parasitic Cape honeybee workers, Apis mellifera capensis, evade policing


Relocation of the Cape honeybee, Apis mellifera capensis, by bee-keepers from southern to northern South Africa in 1990 has caused widespread death of managed African honeybee, A. m. scutellata, colonies1. Apis mellifera capensis worker bees are able to lay diploid, female eggs without mating by means of automictic thelytoky2 (meiosis followed by fusion of two meiotic products to restore egg diploidy), whereas workers of other honeybee subspecies are able to lay only haploid, male eggs. The A. m. capensis workers, which are parasitizing and killing A. m. scutellata colonies in northern South Africa, are the asexual offspring of a single, original worker in which the small amount of genetic variation observed is due to crossing over during meiosis3 (P. Kryger, personal communication). Here we elucidate two principal mechanisms underlying this parasitism. Parasitic A. m. capensis workers activate their ovaries in host colonies that have a queen present (queenright colonies), and they lay eggs that evade being killed by other workers (worker policing)—the normal fate of worker-laid eggs in colonies with a queen4,5,6,7,8. This unique parasitism by workers is an instance in which a society is unable to control the selfish actions of its members.

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Figure 1: Ovary activation in A. m. scutellata and parasitic A. m. capensis workers fostered in a queenright A. m. scutellata colony.
Figure 2


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This research was funded by the Natural Environment Reserach Council (UK) and the ‘Social Evolution’ Network financed by the EC Training and Mobility of Researchers program. A. Shella provided the A. m. capensis-infected colonies.

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Correspondence to Francis L. W. Ratnieks.

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Martin, S., Beekman, M., Wossler, T. et al. Parasitic Cape honeybee workers, Apis mellifera capensis, evade policing. Nature 415, 163–165 (2002).

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