Student Research Spotlight - Luca Franzini

Posted: December 5, 2014

This is the 12th, and final, short news article written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Deceitful Bumblebees might provide insights to sociality.
By: Duverney Chaverra Rodriguez

One of these fuzzy bees we see naively flying in our gardens could be the next ruler of a society taken by force. Luca Franzini, PhD candidate in Entomology at Penn State is investigating this obscure aspect of bumblebees.
A bumblebee colony has one queen and many workers taking care of her eggs and larvae. “Creating such a laborious workforce takes time and energy, so why not just skip that and let another bumblebee do the work?” said Franzini. It is exactly what Cuckoo bumblebees do. Females do not bother to produce their own colonies and instead pursue a life of deceit, exploiting the societies built by other bumblebees. Once a female finds a colony to take over, she will kill the actual queen and drive the workers to take care of her progeny. “It is a lot like looking at a Shakespearean play, you got queens and usurpers and so much drama”, said Franzini.

Scientists have been studying honeybees and bumblebees for more than a century but few things are known about the basis of their complex behaviours. However, the last decade advances in the study of gene expression have opened new frameworks to understand their societies.
Genes are inherited from parents to children and contribute to regulate physical and behavioural features of individuals like height or feeding behaviour. Franzini believes that studying the genes related with the loss of sociality in the Cuckoo bumblebee could tell us as much about how insect societies arose as well as sociality itself. “Looking at which genes are active or inactive in bumblebees taking up these different lifestyles could give us a powerful insight into the origin of insect societies” said Franzini.

Societies, whether they are made up of cells, bees or humans follow similar rules; understanding insect societies could tell us about even about our own societies.