The super-societies beneath our feet

Calum Stephenson reveals the secrets of insect life in an excerpt from Bang! Science Magazine, out this week


Existing all around us, but disregarded by most, are the greatest societies the world has ever known. Dating back over 100 million years, they have influenced our climate and drastically engineered the environments in which we live. No, these are not some laser-shooting invaders from space hell, but the humblest of conquerors, going about their day to day lives in the shadows. These are the social insects—the ants, termites and bees, unique in their ability to form colonies numbering into the millions of individuals.

Though genetically diverse, the social insects are grouped together due to their similar societal structures, centred around a single reproductive ‘queen’ who serves no other functioning role except to produce the brood. In most cases, all the other individuals in a colony are the queen’s offspring, called the ‘workers’. They raise the brood, forage for food, and act as the colony’s defence force. In some species the workers are divided into different role-based ‘castes’, ranging from large ‘soldiers’ which act as the first line of defence with their powerful mandibles, to the tiny ‘minims’ which carefully tend the brood. Such specialised division of labour allows optimisation of both colony resources and time.

Bees, like us, are primarily visual creatures, having compound eyes sophisticated enough to sense coloured light. They use their vision to locate flowers, the source of their food, but then must relay this information back its colony-mates back at the hive. It does this by performing an elaborate routine colloquially known as the ‘waggle dance’. The bee will dance in a figure of eight, and as it crosses over from one side to the other it will ‘waggle’ its abdomen, releasing various pheromones according to the type of food to be found. The direction of the food source from the hive is conveyed by the direction in which the bee is waggling. The dance is also able to express the distance of the food through the exact duration of the waggle portion.

Such modes of communication are sufficient when the hive is composed of perhaps only a few hundred individuals, but in some insect societies the population can exceed that of humanity’s greatest cities. Termites, for example. Termites set themselves apart due to their unique success in architecture. Across vast swathes of the Australian and African savannah stand imposing mounds up to seven metres tall and 30 metres wide. If the average length of a termite was one centimetre, and we take the average human height to be 1.65 m, this would be equivalent to humans building a structure well over a kilometre high. But writing off these chimneys as mounds of dirt would be terribly naïve. Termites’ towers are meticulously constructed ventilation systems designed to keep the actual colony conditions, located deep underground, at a perfect temperature and humidity for termite life. Termites are the greatest architects on the planet, and success on this scale could never be achieved without their ability to communicate and co-operate.

It is easy to be unsettled by the ‘mindless’ efficiency of these insect super-societies, in which each individual is willing to sacrifice its reproduction, independence, and even its life to preserve the colony as a whole. Could our society be heading in a similar direction, prioritising efficiency over individuality?  Our never-ending scramble towards greater productivity, from intensive agricultural techniques to increasingly rapid mass communication, means that with each passing year we may ever more aptly be described as a super-society.

For more like this, pick up the Communication Issue of Bang! Science Magazine in fifth week