Comparing Social Insects – Ants, Termites, and Bees
The ants go marching one by one by one by one by one…
Where there is one ant, many more are sure to be found. This is because ants—like bees and termites—are social insects. Instead of each one scavenging by themselves, these insects work together in a colony or a hive.
Eusociality is when a species uses a division of labor and reproduction to maximize their survivability. Each individual has a very specific role to play within the colony. This is opposed to solitary—individuals fending for themselves—and parasociality, where individuals may work together, but each member can fill most roles within a group.
The main roles within a colony include the “queen” which lays the eggs, and the “workers” which build the colony and care for the queen and her eggs. The workers don’t reproduce but benefit from the colony much more than they would have on their own.
Ants are one of the most abundant critters on the planet. In fact, their colonies can be found on every landmass except for Antarctica and some super-remote islands. Colonies consist of a queen, male drones, and female workers. Usually the drones and queen have wings until they mate. The queens lay eggs, which hatch into larvae. After the larvae are cared for by their “sister” workers, they become pupae. These then molt into adults, finishing their complete metamorphosis.
Termites are known for eating wood—and while this can be a major structural problem—is important in recycling wood nutrients. Unlike bees, ants, and wasps, Termites belong to the cockroach family, and don’t undergo complete metamorphosis. Instead, they hatch into a nymph stage, which eventually molts into an adult.
Termites were the first eusocial insects, forming colonies as early as the Cretaceous. The colonies consist of a fertile “king” with one or more queens, with both the sterile males and females filling the worker and soldier roles.
And, finally, there are bees. Unlike ants and termites, bees have permanent wings. Almost all species of bees pollinate flowers. In return, flowers have evolved to reward bees with more nectar, which most bees will turn into honey. This honey, in turn, feeds the larvae until they complete their metamorphosis through a pupal stage.
The European Honey Bee was the first insect to be domesticated. It is one of the most common species of bee in the wild.
Other Social Animals
Wasps—which are in the same family as bees and ants—have several eusocial species, such as mud wasps. Only a few other specific invertebrate species, (such as a species of shrimp, and some thrifts, a kind of flying insect) demonstrate this behavior.
The only known mammals to exhibit eusocial behavior are a couple of species of naked mole rats. However, these rodents only divide up reproductive roles (i.e. they only have a queen and workers) when resources are scarce. When there is plenty of food to go around, they go back to being parasocial.