Socially induced brain development in a facultatively eusocial sweat bee Megalopta genalis (Halictidae)

Adam R. Smith, Marc A. Seid, Lissette C. Jiménez, William T. Wcislo


Changes in the relative size of brain regions are often dependent on experience and environmental stimulation, which includes an animal's social environment. Some studies suggest that social interactions are cognitively demanding, and have examined predictions that the evolution of sociality led to the evolution of larger brains. Previous studies have compared species with different social organizations or different groups within obligately social species. Here, we report the first intraspecific study to examine how social experience shapes brain volume using a species with facultatively eusocial or solitary behaviour, the sweat bee Megalopta genalis. Serial histological sections were used to reconstruct and measure the volume of brain areas of bees behaving as social reproductives, social workers, solitary reproductives or 1-day-old bees that are undifferentiated with respect to the social phenotype. Social reproductives showed increased development of the mushroom body (an area of the insect brain associated with sensory integration and learning) relative to social workers and solitary reproductives. The gross neuroanatomy of young bees is developmentally similar to the advanced eusocial species previously studied, despite vast differences in colony size and social organization. Our results suggest that the transition from solitary to social behaviour is associated with modified brain development, and that maintaining dominance, rather than sociality per se, leads to increased mushroom body development, even in the smallest social groups possible (i.e. groups with two bees). Such results suggest that capabilities to navigate the complexities of social life may be a factor shaping brain evolution in some social insects, as for some vertebrates.


    • Received February 9, 2010.
    • Accepted March 2, 2010.
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