The highly organized societies of the Western honey bee Apis mellifera feature a highly reproductive queen at the center of attention and a large cohort of daughters that suppress their own reproduction to help rear more sisters, some of whom become queens themselves. This reproductive altruism is peculiar because in theory it evolves via indirect selection on genes for altruism that are expressed in the sterile workers but not in the reproductive queens. In this study we attempt to situate lists of genes previously implicated in queenright worker sterility into a broader regulatory framework. To do so we use a model bee brain transcriptional regulatory network as a template to infer how sets of genes responsive to ovary-suppressing queen pheromone are functionally interconnected over the model’s topology. We predict that genes jointly involved in the regulation of worker sterility should be tightly networked, relative to genes whose functions are unrelated to each other. We find that sets of mapped genes – ranging in size from 17 to 250 – are well dispersed across the network’s substructural scaffolds, suggesting that ovary de-activation involves genes that reside within more than one transcriptional regulatory module. For some sets, however, this dispersion is biased into certain areas of the network’s substructure. Our analysis identifies the regions enriched for sterility genes and likewise identifies local hub genes that are presumably critical to subnetwork function. Our work offers a glimpse into the gene regulatory context of honey bee worker sterility and uses this context to identify new candidate gene targets for functional analysis. Finally, to the extent that any sterility-related modules identified here have evolved via selection for worker altruism, we can assume that this selection was indirect and of the type specifically invoked by inclusive fitness theory.

Author Information

Alex W Guoth
Department of Biology, The University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada

Anna M. Chernyshova
Department of Biology, The University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada

Graham J. Thompson
Department of Biology, The University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada


Guoth, Alex & Chernyshova, Anna & Thompson, Graham. (2020). Gene-regulatory context of honey bee worker sterility. Biosystems. 198. 104235. 10.1016/j.biosystems.2020.104235.