Colonies

Sean O'Donnell

University ofWashington, Seattle

Some species of insects spend much or all of their life living in organized social groups called colonies. Insect colonies have long fascinated biologists because they resemble superorganisms. Although insect societies are composed of distinct individuals, they possess group organization and coherence. Colonies exhibit emergent developmental properties, which are characteristics that cannot be explained or predicted by examining the behavior of their component parts. Insect colonies can serve as useful models of biological processes that occur in other complex living systems. One powerful analogy has been to compare the initiation, growth, and reproduction of an insect colony to the process of development of multicellular organisms.

Like individual plants and animals, insect colonies are initiated by propagules that are produced by parents (mother colonies); they then grow, reproduce, and often decline in old age. However, a wide array of developmental patterns have evolved in insect societies. Some of this variation can be explained by abiotic factors, such as the climate that prevails in the geographic range of a given species. Seasonality of temperature, daylength, and rainfall appear to have far-reaching effects on colony development. Climatic variables are not the whole story, however, since a diversity of colony cycles can be found among closely related species that live in the same area. Pressure from natural enemies, such as predators and parasites, as well as pressure from social competitors, has shaped the evolution of colony development.

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