Maternal care in carpenter bees mirrors human parenting

From beehives to nurseries: The surprising parallels of maternal care

1281667642 Carpenter bees are species in the genus Xylocopa of the subfamily Xylocopinae | Shutterstock

In a buzzing revelation that bridges the gap between the insect and human kingdoms, York University researchers have unearthed a remarkable connection between maternal care in tiny carpenter bees and the parenting we humans hold dear. Their findings unveil an astonishing tale of microbiomes, developmental intricacies, and the critical role that mothers play in shaping the destiny of their offspring.

This study not only provides unprecedented insights into the impact of maternal care on developing offspring but also lays the foundation for understanding the development of microbiomes. "It is a complex paper that provides layers of data and shows the power of genomics as a tool," says senior author Sandra Rehan, a professor in York's Faculty of Science. "It allows us to document the interactions between host and environment."

As we delve into the intricacies of the bee world, we uncover a rich tapestry of diversity. This research reminds us that bees, like humans, come in countless shapes, sizes, and lifestyles. Understanding this complexity may well be the key to safeguarding the intricate web of life that bees so tirelessly pollinate.

In a world abuzz with mysteries, this study offers a unique perspective on the hidden life of bees, showcasing their astonishing differences and, perhaps more importantly, their striking similarities to us. For, in the tiny world of the carpenter bee, maternal care is the thread that weaves the story of life itself.


The unlikely parallel: Most wild bees are solitary creatures, navigating the vast floral landscapes independently. However, one diminutive species of carpenter bees, Ceratina calcarata, stands apart as a maternal maverick. These diligent mothers shower their offspring with attention and care, a gesture that reverberates through the bee kingdom. Not unlike human mothers nurturing their children, these carpenter bee matriarchs shield their young from a perilous world of harmful fungi, bacteria, viruses, and parasites in their earliest stage of life.

A protective embrace: Without maternal care, the pathogen load in these developing bees spirals out of control. A staggering 85 percent fall prey to fungi, while eight percent contend with bacteria. This microbial imbalance can wreak havoc on their microbiome, a vital facet of bee health. It also disrupts their development, weakens their immune systems, and fiddles with their gene expression. The consequences ripple through their bodies, potentially altering brain and eye development, and even their behavior. The most fearsome fungus of them all, Aspergillus, known for inducing stonebrood disease in honeybees, can petrify bee offspring. As the bees grow, the lack of maternal care leaves them with a diminished microbiome, rendering them more susceptible to diseases and overall poor health.

A glimpse into development: The researchers ventured into the four developmental stages of these carpenter bees, scrutinizing the larvae stage both in the presence and absence of maternal care. "There are fitness effects resulting from these fungal infections. We are documenting the shifts in development, the shifts in disease loads, and it is a big deal because in wild bees, there is a lot less known about their disease loads. We are highlighting all of these factors for the first time," says Rehan.

Genomic domino effect: It turns out that the genes these bees express or suppress, along with disease loads, all depend on the presence or lack of maternal care. These tiny, single mothers construct one nest a year in the pith of dead plant stems, where they give birth and nurture their offspring from spring to late fall. Anything that hinders these mothers from caring for their young escalates the risks of nest predation and parasitism, including excessive pruning of spring and fall stems. The consequences loom large for their offspring.