Demography in eusocial Hymenoptera

Kramer, B. H.

200 pages. Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg-Universitӓt (2013)

Keywords: evolution, life histories, life span


In my doctoral thesis I investigated the evolution of demographic traits within eusocial Hymenoptera. In the social bees, wasps and ants, eusociality has a unique effect on life span evolution as female larvae with the same genetic background can develop through phenotypic plasticity to a queen or a worker with vastly diverging life-history traits. Ant queens belong to the longest-lived insect species, while workers in most species live only a fraction of the queen’s life span. The average colony size of a species is positively correlated with social complexity, division of labor and diverging morphological female phenotypes all of which also affect life span. Therefore the demographic traits of interest in this thesis were life span and colony size. To understand the evolution of worker life span I applied a trade-off model that includes both hierarchical levels important in eusocial systems, namely the colony- and the individual-level. I showed that the evolution of worker life span may be an adaptive trait on the colony level to optimize resource allocation and therefore fitness in response to different levels of extrinsic mortality. A shorter worker life span as a result of reduced resource investments under high levels of extrinsic mortality increases colony fitness. In a further study I showed that Lasius niger colonies produce different aging phenotypes throughout colony development. Smaller colonies which apply a different foraging strategy than larger colonies produced smaller workers, which in turn have a longer life span as compared to larger workers produced in larger colonies. With the switch to cooperative foraging in growing colonies individual workers become less important for the colony caused by their increasing redundancy. Alternatively a trade of between growth and life span may lead to the results found in this study. A further comparative analysis to study the effect of colony size on life span showed a correlation between queen and worker life span when colony size is taken into account. While neither worker nor queen life span was associated with colony size, the differences between queen and worker life span increase with larger average colony sizes across all eusocial Hymenoptera. As colony size affects both queen and worker life span, I aimed to understand which factors lead to the small colony sizes displayed by some ant species. I therefore analyzed per-capita productivity at different colony sizes of eight cavity dwelling ant species. Most colonies of the study species grew larger than optimal productivity predicted. Larger colony size was shown to increase colony homeostasis, the predictability of future productivity and in turn the survival probability of the colony. I also showed that species that deploy an individual foraging mode may circumvent the density dependent decline in foraging success by splitting the colony to several nest sites.