Despite a presumed fitness advantage for individuals with well-developed cognitive abilities, learning performance is usually found to be highly variable within a population. Although little is currently known about the mechanisms responsible for maintaining such variation, there is correlative evidence to suggest that learning performance may be linked to reproductive physiology in the social insects. Bumble bee colonies naturally undergo an initial co-operative phase, when only the queen reproduces, and a subsequent competition phase when all colony members compete to produce male offspring. We experimentally induced these distinct phases by manipulating the presence/absence of the queen and assessed changes in sucrose responsiveness and learning performance. We found that nest-based workers upregulated their reproductive potential in queenless colonies, and correspondingly, these bees were more responsive to sucrose than their queenright counterparts, performing better in an olfactory learning task as a result. These findings suggest that differences in ovarian development are responsible for at least some of the remarkable variation in learning performance that can be observed among very closely related members of social insect colonies.