Social insect colonies are complex systems in which the interactions of many individuals lead to colony-level collective behaviors such as foraging. However, the emergent properties of collective behaviors may not necessarily be adaptive. Here, we examine symmetry breaking, an emergent pattern exhibited by some social insects that can lead colonies to focus their foraging effort on only one of several available food patches. Symmetry breaking has been reported to occur in several ant species. However, it is not clear whether it arises as an unavoidable epiphenomenon of pheromone recruitment, or whether it is an adaptive behavior that can be controlled through modification of the individual behavior of workers. In this paper, we used a simulation model to test how symmetry breaking is affected by the degree of non-linearity of recruitment, the specific mechanism used by individuals to choose between patches, patch size, and forager number. The model shows that foraging intensity on different trails becomes increasingly asymmetric as the recruitment response of individuals varies from linear to highly non-linear, supporting the predictions of previous work. Surprisingly, we also found that the direction of the relationship between forager number (i.e., colony size) and asymmetry varied depending on the specific details of the decision rule used by individuals. Limiting the size of the resource produced a damping effect on asymmetry, but only at high forager numbers. Variation in the rule used by individual ants to choose trails is a likely mechanism that could cause variation among the foraging behaviors of species, and is a behavior upon which selection could act.
Many ant species are polydomous, forming multiple spatially segregated nests that exchange workers and brood. However, why polydomy occurs is still uncertain. We investigated whether colonies of Crematogaster torosa form new polydomous nests to better exploit temporally stable food resources. Specifically, we tested the effect of food presence or absence and distance on the likelihood that colonies would form a new nest. Because this species also forms little-known structures that house only workers without brood (outstations), we also compared the function of this structure with true nests. Laboratory-reared colonies were connected to a new foraging arena containing potential nest sites with or without food for 4 months. When food was present, most colonies formed polydomous nests nearby and the remainder formed outstations. When food was absent, the behavior of colonies differed significantly, frequently forming outstations but never polydomous nests. Distance had no effect on the type of structure formed, but when food was present, a larger proportion of the workforce moved shorter distances. Workers often fortified the entrances to both structures and used them for storage of dried insect tissue ("jerky"). In an investigation of spatial fidelity, we found that workers on the between-nest trail were associated with the original nest, whereas workers collecting food were more likely to be associated with the new nest or outstation. C. torosa appears to have a flexible colony structure, forming both outstations and polydomous nests. Polydomous nests in this species were associated with foraging and were only formed near food resources. © 2010 Springer-Verlag.
Social insects are distinguished by their extraordinary degree of cooperation and the complexity of their group organization. However, a high proportion of individuals (often >50% at any one time) in a social insect colony tend to be inactive. It has been hypothesized that larger colonies can afford such inactivity because of efficiencies gained through stronger division of labor. We quantify the degree to which colonies of different sizes exhibit division of labor, and what proportion tends to be inactive, in the ant Temnothorax albipennis. Colony size neither influenced individual specialization nor overall division of labor in this species and larger colonies did not show a higher proportion of inactive workers. Interestingly, small colonies seemed to rely more on a small number of high-performance workers: the proportion of work performed by the single most active worker is significantly higher in smaller colonies for several tasks. More research is needed to resolve when and how colony size affects collective organization and division of labor in insect colonies.
Many insects and arthropods live in colonies or aggregations of varying size. Group size may affect collective organization either because the same individual behavior has different consequences when displayed in a larger group or because larger groups are subject to different constraints and selection pressures than smaller groups. In eusocial colonies, group size may have similar effects on colony traits as body size has on organismal traits. Social insects may, therefore, be useful to test theories about general principles of scaling, as they constitute a distinct level of organization. However, there is a surprising lack of data on group sizes in social insects and other group-living arthropods, and multiple confounding factors have to be controlled to detect effects of group size. If such rigorous studies are performed, group size may become as important to understanding collective organization as is body size in explaining behavior and life history of individual organisms. © 2012 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved.
PMID: 21625450;PMCID: PMC3098866;Abstract:
Background: An important function of many complex networks is to inhibit or promote the transmission of disease, resources, or information between individuals. However, little is known about how the temporal dynamics of individual-level interactions affect these networks and constrain their function. Ant colonies are a model comparative system for understanding general principles linking individual-level interactions to network-level functions because interactions among individuals enable integration of multiple sources of information to collectively make decisions, and allocate tasks and resources. Methodology/Findings: Here we show how the temporal and spatial dynamics of such individual interactions provide upper bounds to rates of colony-level information flow in the ant Temnothorax rugatulus. We develop a general framework for analyzing dynamic networks and a mathematical model that predicts how information flow scales with individual mobility and group size. Conclusions/Significance: Using thousands of time-stamped interactions between uniquely marked ants in four colonies of a range of sizes, we demonstrate that observed maximum rates of information flow are always slower than predicted, and are constrained by regulation of individual mobility and contact rate. By accounting for the ordering and timing of interactions, we can resolve important difficulties with network sampling frequency and duration, enabling a broader understanding of interaction network functioning across systems and scales. © 2011 Blonder, Dornhaus.