Alliances and struggles in the miniature ecosystem of a socially flexible bee
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Cooperation is pervasive in nature but paradoxically also provides opportunity to cheaters. My dissertation involves the study of both cooperation and conflict in two species of Megalopta bees. Megalopta is a Neotropical genus of halictid bees whose biology is characterized by complex life cycles that can range from solitary to eusocial. These bees nest in dead wood and forage under dim light conditions. Megalopta’s nests are inhabited by an extensive array of organisms and each nest therefore constitutes a miniature ecosystem providing opportunities for cooperation and conflict, both within and between species. I first delineate the social structure of M. genalis and M. ecuadoria nests in several Panamanian populations and integrate the factors that play a role in the behavioral decisions of females when joining a social group or not. Within a kin-selection framework, I discuss how genetic relatedness plays a role in the formation of social nests. Second, I investigate the conflict between host bees and a congener social parasite, and I elucidate reproductive structures that are relevant for understanding the evolution of parasitism. Finally, I describe a cleaning mutualism between Megalopta bees and their mite associates. Bee-mite associations encompass a broad spectrum of interspecific interactions. Some bee-mites are thought to perform cleaning services for their hosts in exchange for suitable environments for reproduction and dispersal. Field observations and experimental manipulation reveal a significant correlation between the presence of mites and the absence of fungi inside the brood cells, as well as between the absence of mites and increased bee mortality. This study therefore provides evidence of the sanitary effect of mites in nests of Megalopta bees. This bee-mite association constitutes one of the few examples of terrestrial cleaning mutualisms.