Division of Labor in Insect Societies

Gene E. Robinson

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Division of labor is fundamental to the organization of the insect societies and is thought to be one of the principal factors in their ecological success. Different activities are performed simultaneously by specialized individuals in social insect colonies, which is more efficient than if tasks are performed sequentially by unspecialized individuals.

Division of labor is one of the defining characteristics of the most extreme form of sociality in the animal kingdom, "eusociality." Eusociality is defined by three traits: (1) cooperative care of young by members of the same colony, (2) an overlap of at least two generations of adults in the same colony, and (3) division of labor for reproduction, with (more or less) sterile individuals working on behalf of fecund colony members. It is now recognized by many biologists that eusociality extends to taxa beyond the ants, bees, wasps (Hymenoptera), and termites (Isoptera). This article focuses on the societies of the classic social insects, particularly the Hymenoptera, because they have the most elaborate and well-studied systems of division of labor.

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