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Title: Evaluating the role of social context and environmental factors in mediating overwintering physiology in honey bees ( Apis mellifera )

In temperate climates, honey bees show strong phenotypic plasticity associated with seasonal changes. In summer, worker bees typically only survive for about a month and can be further classified as young nurse bees (which feed the developing brood) and older forager bees. In winter, brood production and foraging halts and the worker bees live several months. These differences in task and longevity are reflected in their physiology, with summer nurses and long-lived winter bees typically having larger fat bodies, high expression levels of vitellogenin (a longevity, nutrition, and immune-related gene), and larger provisioning glands in their head. The environmental factors (both within the colony and within the surrounding environment) that trigger this transition to long-lived winter bees are poorly understood. One theory suggests is that winter bees are an extended nurse bee state, brought on by a reduction in nursing duties in the fall (i.e., lower brood area). We examine that theory here by assessing nurse bee physiology in both the summer and fall, in colonies with varying levels of brood. We find that season is a better predictor of nurse bee physiology than brood area. This finding suggests that seasonal factors beyond brood area, such as pollen availability and colony demography, may be necessary for inducing the winter bee phenotype. This finding furthers our understanding of winter bee biology, which could have important implications for colony management for winter, a critical period for colony survival.

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The Company of Biologists
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Journal of Experimental Biology
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Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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