Insect societies – Department of Biology - University of Copenhagen

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Ten good reasons to study social insect evolution

  1. The social insects have a massive ecological & economic impact:
    There are tens of thousands of ant, bee, wasp and termite species: some of these social insects form loose societies, others are superorganisms. Many of these are economically important as pollinators, perform other ecosystem services, or are pests. This means everyone, researcher or not, can see and appreciate their impact.

  2. Understanding natural cooperation from first principles:
    Because they lack cultural inheritance, social insects are excellent models for studying the evolutionary principles of cooperation, their possible corruption by social conflicts, and the regulation of conflicts for the preservation of colony productivity.

  3. Models of highly efficient disease control:
    Social insects are excellent models for the comparative study of epidemiology - the incidence, distribution, and possible control of diseases. The ants, bees and termites in particular have prophylactic social immune systems that keep colonies largely free of diseases.

  4. Novel antibiotics & defensive chemicals:
    Microorganisms domesticated by social insects produce antibiotics that offer colonies protection against disease, without, as far as we can tell, facing problems of antibiotic resistance.

  5. Exemplars of sustainable farming:
    The ants and termites have independently evolved industrial scale farming of monocultures of fungal crops, including the sustainable management of agricultural pests.

  6. Models for understanding the genetics of ageing:
    The physically differentiated castes of ants, bees and termites express very different natural life-spans with the same genomes and genotypes: queens may live for decades and their sister or daughter workers for only a few months.

  7. Unusually efficient reproductive biology: 
    Long-lived queens of ants and bees are only inseminated once in their life-time, as young adults: they have evolved mechanisms for the decades-long preservation of stored sperm at ambient temperatures, whereas human sperm banks rely on cryopreservation.

  8. A novel perspective on developmental biology: 
    Where solitary animals have one type of developmental biology, social insects experience both individual-level development (egg, larva, pupa, young adult, senescent adult) and colony-level development (foundation, incipient colony, sexually mature colony, senescent colony). Gene expression, particularly in brains, is expected to track both types of development simultaneously.

  9. Speciation hotspots: 
    For more than 100 million years, the nests of social insects have been hotspots of speciation for many other organisms, often leading to extreme forms of specialization and bizarre adaptations of chemical and acoustic mimicry.

  10. Models for understanding the genomic underpinning of adaptation: 
    Social insects are ideal models for studying fundamental evolutionary questions about the molecular basis of phenotypic adaptation in social and life-history traits, when combined with modern multi-omics tools. Colony life allows direct replicated comparisons between parents, offspring and siblings.

Read more: What insect societies are and why they exist