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Have large scale colony nuclei production and colony splitting practices caused us to inadvertently select for particular traits or genes that promote the expansion of particular honeybee lineages or clades at the expense of the colony’s selfless social organization?  I spend time thinking about strange phenomena, especially when the frequency of occurrence of a strange phenomenon is increasing noticeably.  Let me begin explaining one of my current worries by describing what I’ve observed recently with increasing frequency.  

What beekeeping practices might have contributed to the increasing frequency of these problems? I posit this possible explanation: Where large numbers of colony splits and nucs are produced from colonies with high levels of genetic relatedness, and some are left queenless to rear their own queens from young larvae or half or full sister queen cells are introduced to these queenless nucs and splits, we create the conditions ripe for the forces of evolution to select for particular patrigenic or matrigenic alleles that create a reproductive advantage for the individuals carrying those alleles.  I’ll explain the mechanism that favors patrigenes that confer a reproductive advantage in particular later in a subsequent blog. For present purposes let me cut to the chase and then back up and fill in some of the blanks.  If in fact we do engage in particular management practices that could lead to social disruption, especially those that create unusual reproductive advantages for particular full sister cohorts or reduce the collective social costs of favoring that advantaged sister clade, then bad things could happen.  The result could be that we inadvertently sponsor the development and then runaway expansion of a genetically selfish, semi-clonal population adapted to favor its own reproduction and suppress the reproductive opportunities of half-sisters, all to the long-term detriment of the social organism and species.  The rejection of unrelated queens might be one manifestation of this incipient evolutionary maladaptation in progress.

You may fairly ask, has the pandemic left me lonely and paranoid with nothing better to worry about that some imagined beekeeping calamity that is purely a figment of my imagination?  No, my anxiety is driven by repeated observation of increasing queen introduction problems and post-acceptance, queen rejection issues. These problems have occurred repeatedly but are confined to colonies and nucs populated by bees from particular commercial Italian honeybee lines.  It is worth nothing that the bees in these colonies also exhibit very homogeneous morphology and behavior, and I suspect are highly related, genetically – though that last conjecture remains to be formally investigated.  Another trait exhibited by these bees that resist requeening, and/or replace laying queens a week or two after seeming acceptance, is that they often immediately devolve into colonies with large numbers of laying workers, with initiation of worker oviposition occurring while introduced laying queens remain in the colony or within a few days of the introduced queen’s regicide. 

Even if my worries prove prescient and more observations and experiments confirm the troublesome patterns described here, why should you or anyone else care?  I would offer these warnings – the tremendous capacity of honeybees to do all the amazing things they do is a consequence of their cohesive social structure and them living the by the musketeers’ mantra of ‘all for one and one for all’.  If we somehow inadvertently sponsor the reproductive success and evolutionary adaptation of pseudo-clonal lineages that selfishly promote the reproductive success of their sisters within the colony at the expense of other co-existing half-sister cohorts, then the social organization and resilient function of the colony in the face of constantly changing environmental variables may suffer.  Ultimately, the selfish lineage could become a true clonal parasite, and wreak havoc on the larger honeybee population, the productivity of hives and agriculture around the world, the livelihood of beekeepers, and the reproductive capacity of flowering plants.  All are outcomes to be avoided. More soon. ~ Dan Weaver