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Concept: Eusociality


INTRODUCTION: Primitively eusocial halictid bees are excellent systems to study the origin of eusociality, because all individuals have retained the ancestral ability to breed independently. In the sweat bee Halictus scabiosae, foundresses overwinter, establish nests and rear a first brood by mass-provisioning each offspring with pollen and nectar. The mothers may thus manipulate the phenotype of their offspring by restricting their food provisions. The first brood females generally help their mother to rear a second brood of males and gynes that become foundresses. However, the first brood females may also reproduce in their maternal or in other nests, or possibly enter early diapause. Here, we examined if the behavioural specialization of the first and second brood females was associated with between-brood differences in body size, energetic reserves and pollen provisions. RESULTS: The patterns of variation in adult body size, weight, fat content and food provisioned to the first and second brood indicate that H. scabiosae has dimorphic females. The first-brood females were significantly smaller, lighter and had lower fat reserves than the second-brood females and foundresses. The first-brood females were also less variable in size and fat content, and developed on homogeneously smaller pollen provisions. Foundresses were larger than gynes of the previous year, suggesting that small females were less likely to survive the winter. CONCLUSIONS: The marked size dimorphism between females produced in the first and second brood and the consistently smaller pollen provisions provided to the first brood suggest that the first brood females are channelled into a helper role during their pre-imaginal development. As a large body size is needed for successful hibernation, the mother may promote helping in her first brood offspring by restricting their food provisions. This pattern supports the hypothesis that parental manipulation may contribute to promote worker behaviour in primitively eusocial halictids.

Concepts: Insect, Mother, Honey, Bee, Ant, Eusociality, Halictidae, Gyne


Microbial pathogens are ancient selective agents that have driven many aspects of multicellular evolution, including genetic, behavioural, chemical and immune defence systems. It appears that fungi specialised to attack insects were already present in the environments in which social insects first evolved and we hypothesise that if the early stages of social evolution required antifungal defences, then covariance between levels of sociality and antifungal defences might be evident in extant lineages, the defences becoming stronger with group size and increasing social organisation. Thus, we compared the activity of cuticular antifungal compounds in thrips species (Insecta: Thysanoptera) representing a gradient of increasing group size and sociality: solitary, communal, social and eusocial, against the entomopathogen Cordyceps bassiana. Solitary and communal species showed little or no activity. In contrast, the social and eusocial species killed this fungus, suggesting that the evolution of sociality has been accompanied by sharp increases in the effectiveness of antifungal compounds. The antiquity of fungal entomopathogens, demonstrated by fossil finds, coupled with the unequivocal response of thrips colonies to them shown here, suggests two new insights into the evolution of thrips sociality: First, traits that enabled nascent colonies to defend themselves against microbial pathogens should be added to those considered essential for social evolution. Second, limits to the strength of antimicrobials, through resource constraints or self-antibiosis, may have been overcome by increase in the numbers of individuals secreting them, thus driving increases in colony size. If this is the case for social thrips, then we may ask: did antimicrobial traits and microbes such as fungal entomopathogens play an integral part in the evolution of insect sociality in general?

Concepts: Bacteria, Evolution, Microbiology, Insect, Fungus, Ant, Beauveria bassiana, Eusociality


Chemical communication is fundamental to success in social insect colonies. Species-, colony-, and caste-specific blends of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) and other chemicals have been well documented as pheromones, mediating important behavioral and physiological aspects of social insects. More specifically, royal pheromones used by queens (and kings in termites) enable workers to recognize and care for these vital individuals and maintain the reproductive division of labor. In termites, however, no royal-recognition pheromones have been identified to date. In the current study, solvent extracts of the subterranean termiteReticulitermes flavipeswere analyzed to assess differences in cuticular compounds among castes. We identified a royal-specific hydrocarbon-heneicosane-and several previously unreported and highly royal enriched long-chain alkanes. When applied to glass dummies, heneicosane elicited worker behavioral responses identical to those elicited by live termite queens, including increased vibratory shaking and antennation. Further, the behavioral effects of heneicosane were amplified when presented with nestmate termite workers' cuticular extracts, underscoring the importance of chemical context in termite royal recognition. Thus, heneicosane is a royal-recognition pheromone that is active in both queens and kings ofR. flavipesThe use of heneicosane as a queen and king recognition pheromone by termites suggests that CHCs evolved as royal pheromones ∼150 million years ago, ∼50 million years before their first use as queen-recognition pheromones in social Hymenoptera. We therefore infer that termites and social Hymenoptera convergently evolved the use of these ubiquitous compounds in royal recognition.

Concepts: Insect, Lepidoptera, Ant, Hymenoptera, Insects, Eusociality, Pheromone, Termite


Insect societies are complex systems, displaying emergent properties much greater than the sum of their individual parts. As such, the concept of these societies as single ‘superorganisms’ is widely applied to describe their organisation and biology. Here, we test the applicability of this concept to the response of social insect colonies to predation during a vulnerable period of their life history. We used the model system of house-hunting behaviour in the ant Temnothorax albipennis. We show that removing individuals from directly within the nest causes an evacuation response, while removing ants at the periphery of scouting activity causes the colony to withdraw back into the nest. This suggests that colonies react differentially, but in a coordinated fashion, to these differing types of predation. Our findings lend support to the superorganism concept, as the whole society reacts much like a single organism would in response to attacks on different parts of its body. The implication of this is that a collective reaction to the location of worker loss within insect colonies is key to avoiding further harm, much in the same way that the nervous systems of individuals facilitate the avoidance of localised damage.

Concepts: Organism, Insect, Sociology, Complex system, Ant, Eusociality, Superorganisms, Superorganism


Eusocial insect colonies form superorganisms, in which nestmates cooperate and use social immunity to combat parasites. However, social immunity may fail in case of emerging diseases. This is the case for the ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor, which switched hosts from the Eastern honeybee, Apis cerana, to the Western honey bee, Apis mellifera, and currently is the greatest threat to A. mellifera apiculture globally. Here, we show that immature workers of the mite’s original host, A. cerana, are more susceptible to V. destructor infestations than those of its new host, thereby enabling more efficient social immunity and contributing to colony survival. This counterintuitive result shows that susceptible individuals can foster superorganism survival, offering empirical support to theoretical arguments about the adaptive value of worker suicide in social insects. Altruistic suicide of immature bees constitutes a social analogue of apoptosis, as it prevents the spread of infections by sacrificing parts of the whole organism, and unveils a novel form of transgenerational social immunity in honey bees. Taking into account the key role of susceptible immature bees in social immunity will improve breeding efforts to mitigate the unsustainably high colony losses of Western honey bees due to V. destructor infestations worldwide.

Concepts: Insect, European honey bee, Honey bee, Beekeeping, Bumblebee, Ant, Apidae, Eusociality


Queen monogamy is ancestral among bees, ants, and wasps (Order Hymenoptera), and the close relatedness that it generates within colonies is considered key for the evolution of eusociality in these lineages [1]. Paradoxically, queens of several eusocial species are extremely promiscuous [2], a derived behavior that decreases relatedness among workers and fitness gained from rearing siblings but benefits queens by enhancing colony productivity [3-9] and inducing workers to rear queens' sons instead of less related worker-derived males [10-13]. Selection for promiscuity would be especially strong if productivity in a singly inseminated queen’s colony declined because selfish workers invested in personal reproduction at the expense of performing tasks that contribute to colony productivity. We show in honey bees that workers' ovaries are more developed when queens are singly rather than multiply inseminated and that increasing ovary activation is coupled with reductions in task performance by workers and colony-wide rates of foraging and waggle-dance recruitment. Increased investment in reproductive physiology by selfish workers might result from greater incentive for them to favor worker-derived males or because low mating frequency signals a queen’s diminished quality or future fecundity. Either possibility fosters selection for queen promiscuity, revealing a novel benefit of it for eusocial insects.

Concepts: Reproduction, Insect, Honey bee, Beekeeping, Bee, Ant, Hymenoptera, Eusociality


Social insects nesting in soil environments are in constant contact with entomopathogens but have evolved a range of defence mechanisms, resulting in both individual and social immunity that reduce the chance for epizootics in the colony, as in the case of subterranean termites. Coptotermes formosanus uses its faeces as building material for its nest structure that result into a ‘carton material’, and here, we report that the faecal nest supports the growth of Actinobacteria which provide another level of protection to the social group against entomopathogens. A Streptomyces species with in vivo antimicrobial activity against fungal entomopathogens was isolated from the nest material of multiple termite colonies. Termite groups were exposed to Metarhizium anisopliae, a fungal entomopathogen, during their foraging activity and the presence of Streptomyces within the nest structure provided a significant survival benefit to the termites. Therefore, this report describes a non-nutritional exosymbiosis in a termite, in the form of a defensive mutualism which has emerged from the use of faecal material in the nesting structure of Coptotermes. The association with an Actinobacteria community in the termite faecal material provides an extended disease resistance to the termite group as another level of defence, in addition to their individual and social immunity.

Concepts: Bacteria, Insect, Cellulose, Ant, Eusociality, Termite, Termites, Formosan subterranean termite


Predators of highly defensive prey likely develop cost-reducing adaptations. The ant Megaponera analis is a specialized termite predator, solely raiding termites of the subfamily Macrotermitinae (in this study, mostly colonies of Pseudocanthotermes sp.) at their foraging sites. The evolutionary arms race between termites and ants led to various defensive mechanisms in termites (for example, a caste specialized in fighting predators). Because M. analis incurs high injury/mortality risks when preying on termites, some risk-mitigating adaptations seem likely to have evolved. We show that a unique rescue behavior in M. analis, consisting of injured nestmates being carried back to the nest, reduces combat mortality. After a fight, injured ants are carried back by their nestmates; these ants have usually lost an extremity or have termites clinging to them and are able to recover within the nest. Injured ants that are forced experimentally to return without help, die in 32% of the cases. Behavioral experiments show that two compounds, dimethyl disulfide and dimethyl trisulfide, present in the mandibular gland reservoirs, trigger the rescue behavior. A model accounting for this rescue behavior identifies the drivers favoring its evolution and estimates that rescuing enables maintenance of a 28.7% larger colony size. Our results are the first to explore experimentally the adaptive value of this form of rescue behavior focused on injured nestmates in social insects and help us to identify evolutionary drivers responsible for this type of behavior to evolve in animals.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Predation, Ecology, Symbiosis, Ant, Eusociality, Termite


Migratory behaviour forms an intrinsic part of the life histories of many organisms but is often a high-risk process. Consequently, varied strategies have evolved to negate such risks, but empirical data relating to their functioning are limited. In this study, we use the model system of the house-hunting ant Temnothorax albipennis to demonstrate a key strategy that can shorten migration exposure times in a group of social insects. Colonies of these ants frequently migrate to new nest sites, and due to the nature of their habitat, the distances over which they do so are variable, leading to fluctuating potential costs dependent on migration parameters. We show that colonies of this species facultatively alter the dynamics of a migration and so compensate for the distance over which a given migration occurs. Specifically, they achieve this by modulating the rate of ‘tandem running’, in which workers teach each other the route to a new nest site. Using this method, colonies are able to engage a larger number of individuals in the migration process when the distance to be traversed is greater, and furthermore, the system appears to be based on perceived encounter rate at the individual level. This form of decentralised control highlights the adaptive nature of a behaviour of ecological importance, and indicates that the key to its robustness lies in the use of simple rules. Additionally, our results suggest that such coordinated group reactions are central to achieving the high levels of ecological success seen in many eusocial organisms.

Concepts: Evolution, Biology, Life, Bee, Ant, Hymenoptera, Eusociality, Task allocation and partitioning of social insects


Eusocial insects use cuticular hydrocarbons as components of pheromones that mediate social behaviours, such as caste and nestmate recognition, and regulation of reproduction. In ants such as Harpegnathos saltator, the queen produces a pheromone which suppresses the development of workers' ovaries and if she is removed, workers can transition to a reproductive state known as gamergate. Here we functionally characterize a subfamily of odorant receptors (Ors) with a nine-exon gene structure that have undergone a massive expansion in ants and other eusocial insects. We deorphanize 22 representative members and find they can detect cuticular hydrocarbons from different ant castes, with one (HsOr263) that responds strongly to gamergate extract and a candidate queen pheromone component. After systematic testing with a diverse panel of hydrocarbons, we find that most Harpegnathos saltator Ors are narrowly tuned, suggesting that several receptors must contribute to detection and discrimination of different cuticular hydrocarbons important in mediating eusocial behaviour.Cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC) mediate the interactions between individuals in eusocial insects, but the sensory receptors for CHCs are unclear. Here the authors show that in ants such as H. saltator, the 9-exon subfamily of odorant receptors (HsOrs) responds to CHCs, and ectopic expression of HsOrs in Drosophila neurons imparts responsiveness to CHCs.

Concepts: Insect, Ant, Ants, Hymenoptera, Eusociality, Pheromone, Termite, Task allocation and partitioning of social insects