The impact of environmental stress on insect colonies – Protecting social insect ecosystem services

How do social insects adapt to environmental stress, such as climate change and pollution? While the spotlight is usually on honey bees and pollination, social insects in general, including ants and termites, provide a much broader range of ecological services including pest control, soil conditioning, and seed dispersal. Changing environmental conditions now render them vulnerable.

All social insects live in elaborately organised societies. Their intricate social structures enable them to continuously manage a complex network of simultaneous tasks; from scouting and foraging to colony defence, nest building, thermoregulation, and brood care. To ensure survival and reproduction it is vital for the colony to maintain a carefully balanced division of labour (DOL). While the regulatory mechanisms underpinning DOL provide sufficient flexibility within the normal envelope of environmental conditions, it is unclear just how far this flexibility goes, and at what point colony organisation breaks down. Recent literature on colony collapse documents links between environmental stress factors and “task allocation gone wrong” for isolated aspects, but no general picture has emerged yet. Stress-induced behavioural changes that lead to a collapse of colony organisation may threaten social insect populations on a much broader scale.

This project aims to generate a more complete picture of how environmental factors and stress influence division of labour in a colony and with this the limits of this flexibility. The project builds on evolutionary game theory to develop a new approach for analysing how environmental factors impact on DOL and colony viability. Our work combines mathematical models and computer simulations with biological experiments in the lab and field.