Sensory plasticity in a socially plastic bee

Rebecca A. Boulton*, Jeremy Field

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The social Hymenoptera have contributed much to our understanding of the evolution of sensory systems. Attention has focussed chiefly on how sociality and sensory systems have evolved together. In the Hymenoptera, the antennal sensilla are important for optimizing the perception of olfactory social information. Social species have denser antennal sensilla than solitary species, which is thought to enhance social cohesion through nestmate recognition. In the current study, we test whether sensilla numbers vary between populations of the socially plastic sweat bee Halictus rubicundus from regions that vary in climate and the degree to which sociality is expressed. We found population differences in both olfactory and hygro/thermoreceptive sensilla numbers. We also found evidence that olfactory sensilla density is developmentally plastic: when we transplanted bees from Scotland to the south-east of England, their offspring (which developed in the south) had more olfactory hairs than the transplanted individuals themselves (which developed in Scotland). The transplanted bees displayed a mix of social (a queen plus workers) and solitary nesting, but neither individual nor nest phenotype was related to sensilla density. We suggest that this general, rather than caste-specific sensory plasticity provides a flexible means to optimize sensory perception according to the most pressing demands of the environment. Sensory plasticity may support social plasticity in H. rubicundus but does not appear to be causally related to it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1218-1228
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2022


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