Bumblebees live and die on an annual cycle. In the spring, a founding queen establishes a new colony. The lifespan of her offspring is developmentally determined—offspring destined to remain in the colony as workers are short-lived while those destined to become future founding queens (gynes) live much longer. At the end of the colony cycle, previously cooperative workers become aggressive, sometimes even killing the queen. Ultimately, female workers, males, and the queen all die: gynes are the lone survivors of the colony, undergoing diapause before initiating their own colonies the next year. We are interested in the natural breakdown of social behaviors at the end of life. We study the nervous systems of female workers and gynes to identify the neurodegenerative factors in the worker bumblebee that facilitates their death and the neuroprotective factors in gynes that enable their survival.

A queen surrounded by her female workers.