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Concept: Termite


Optimality theory predicts the maximization of productivity in social insect colonies, but many inactive workers are found in ant colonies. Indeed, the low short-term productivity of ant colonies is often the consequence of high variation among workers in the threshold to respond to task-related stimuli. Why is such an inefficient strategy among colonies maintained by natural selection? Here, we show that inactive workers are necessary for the long-term sustainability of a colony. Our simulation shows that colonies with variable thresholds persist longer than those with invariable thresholds because inactive workers perform the critical function of replacing active workers when they become fatigued. Evidence of the replacement of active workers by inactive workers has been found in ant colonies. Thus, the presence of inactive workers increases the long-term persistence of the colony at the expense of decreasing short-term productivity. Inactive workers may represent a bet-hedging strategy in response to environmental stochasticity.

Concepts: Natural selection, Evolution, Operations research, Ant, Hymenoptera, Termite


Many cockroach species have adapted to urban environments, and some have been serious pests of public health in the tropics and subtropics. Here, we present the 3.38-Gb genome and a consensus gene set of the American cockroach, Periplaneta americana. We report insights from both genomic and functional investigations into the underlying basis of its adaptation to urban environments and developmental plasticity. In comparison with other insects, expansions of gene families in P. americana exist for most core gene families likely associated with environmental adaptation, such as chemoreception and detoxification. Multiple pathways regulating metamorphic development are well conserved, and RNAi experiments inform on key roles of 20-hydroxyecdysone, juvenile hormone, insulin, and decapentaplegic signals in regulating plasticity. Our analyses reveal a high level of sequence identity in genes between the American cockroach and two termite species, advancing it as a valuable model to study the evolutionary relationships between cockroaches and termites.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Genome, Insect, Cockroach, Termite, Cockroaches


While hybridization of an invasive species with a native species is a common occurrence, hybridization between two invasive species is rare. Formosan subterranean termites (Coptotermes formosanus) and Asian subterranean termites (C. gestroi) are both ecologically successful and are the two most economically important termite pests in the world. Both species have spread throughout many areas of the world due to human activity; however, their distributions overlap in only three narrow areas because of distinct ecological requirements. In south Florida, where C. formosanus and C. gestroi are both invasive, the dispersal flight seasons of both species overlapped for the first time on record in 2013 and 2014. Pairings of heterospecific individuals were readily observed in the field and C. gestroi males preferentially engaged in mating behavior with C. formosanus females rather than females from their own species. In the laboratory, heterospecific and conspecific pairings had an equal colony establishment rate, but heterospecific incipient colonies had twice the growth rate of conspecific incipient colonies, suggesting a potential case of hybrid vigor. As all pre-zygotic barriers were lifted between the two species in the field, the apparent absence of post-zygotic barriers in the laboratory raises the possibility for introgressive hybridization in south Florida. While laboratory observations remain to be confirmed in the field, and the alate hybrid fertility is currently unknown, our results raise a tangible concern about the hybridization of two major destructive pest species. Such hybridization would likely be associated with a new economic impact.

Concepts: Human, Ecology, Genetic pollution, Charles Darwin, Introduced species, Termite, Termites, Formosan subterranean termite


Based on molecular dating, the origin of insect agriculture is hypothesized to have taken place independently in three clades of fungus-farming insects: the termites, ants or ambrosia beetles during the Paleogene (66-24 Ma). Yet, definitive fossil evidence of fungus-growing behavior has been elusive, with no unequivocal records prior to the late Miocene (7-10 Ma). Here we report fossil evidence of insect agriculture in the form of fossil fungus gardens, preserved within 25 Ma termite nests from southwestern Tanzania. Using these well-dated fossil fungus gardens, we have recalibrated molecular divergence estimates for the origins of termite agriculture to around 31 Ma, lending support to hypotheses suggesting an African Paleogene origin for termite-fungus symbiosis; perhaps coinciding with rift initiation and changes in the African landscape.

Concepts: Evolution, Insect, Plant, Cretaceous, Ant, Insects, Pheromone, Termite


Chemical communication is fundamental to success in social insect colonies. Species-, colony-, and caste-specific blends of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) and other chemicals have been well documented as pheromones, mediating important behavioral and physiological aspects of social insects. More specifically, royal pheromones used by queens (and kings in termites) enable workers to recognize and care for these vital individuals and maintain the reproductive division of labor. In termites, however, no royal-recognition pheromones have been identified to date. In the current study, solvent extracts of the subterranean termiteReticulitermes flavipeswere analyzed to assess differences in cuticular compounds among castes. We identified a royal-specific hydrocarbon-heneicosane-and several previously unreported and highly royal enriched long-chain alkanes. When applied to glass dummies, heneicosane elicited worker behavioral responses identical to those elicited by live termite queens, including increased vibratory shaking and antennation. Further, the behavioral effects of heneicosane were amplified when presented with nestmate termite workers' cuticular extracts, underscoring the importance of chemical context in termite royal recognition. Thus, heneicosane is a royal-recognition pheromone that is active in both queens and kings ofR. flavipesThe use of heneicosane as a queen and king recognition pheromone by termites suggests that CHCs evolved as royal pheromones ∼150 million years ago, ∼50 million years before their first use as queen-recognition pheromones in social Hymenoptera. We therefore infer that termites and social Hymenoptera convergently evolved the use of these ubiquitous compounds in royal recognition.

Concepts: Insect, Lepidoptera, Ant, Hymenoptera, Insects, Eusociality, Pheromone, Termite


We conducted a laboratory study to determine the impact of ground-applied termiticides on the above-ground foraging behavior of Coptotermes formosanus. Two concentrations (1 and 10 ppm) each of three termiticides, viz. fipronil, imidacloprid and chlorantraniliprole, were tested. After one month post-treatment (fipronil 10 ppm was run for 12 days only and all other treatments were run for one month), fipronil had the lowest percentage of survival (3%-4%) at both concentrations. Termite survival ranged from 31% to 40% in the case of imidacloprid treatments and 10 ppm chlorantraniliprole. However, 1 ppm chlorantraniliprole did not cause significant mortality compared to the controls. Foraging on the bottom substrate was evident in all replicates for all chemicals initially. However, a portion of the foraging population avoided the ground treatment toxicants after several days of bottom foraging. Only the slower-acting non-repellents created this repellent barrier, causing avoidance behavior that was most likely due to dead termites and fungus buildup on the treated bottom substrate. Fipronil appeared more toxic and faster acting at the concentrations tested, thus limiting this repellent effect. Suggestions by the pest control industry in Louisiana that some non-repellents can create a repellent barrier stranding live termites above ground are supported by this laboratory study.

Concepts: Cellulose, Cockroach, Imidacloprid, Termite, Termites, Invasive animal species, Formosan subterranean termite, Fipronil


Social insects frequently engage in oral fluid exchange - trophallaxis - between adults, and between adults and larvae. Although trophallaxis is widely considered a food-sharing mechanism, we hypothesized that endogenous components of this fluid might underlie a novel means of chemical communication between colony members. Through protein and small- molecule mass spectrometry and RNA sequencing, we found that trophallactic fluid in the ant Camponotus floridanus contains a set of specific digestion- and non-digestion related proteins, as well as hydrocarbons, microRNAs, and a key developmental regulator, juvenile hormone. When C. floridanus workers' food was supplemented with this hormone, the larvae they reared via trophallaxis were twice as likely to complete metamorphosis and became larger workers. Comparison of trophallactic fluid proteins across social insect species revealed that many are regulators of growth, development and behavioral maturation. These results suggest that trophallaxis plays previously unsuspected roles in communication and enables communal control of colony phenotypes.

Concepts: Protein, Gene, Metabolism, Insect, Developmental biology, Ant, Hymenoptera, Termite


The sophisticated organization of eusocial insect societies is largely based on the regulation of complex behaviors by hydrocarbon pheromones present on the cuticle. We used electrophysiology to investigate the detection of cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs) by female-specific olfactory sensilla basiconica on the antenna of Camponotus floridanus ants through the utilization of one of the largest family of odorant receptors characterized so far in insects. These sensilla, each of which contains multiple olfactory receptor neurons, are differentially sensitive to CHCs and allow them to be classified into three broad groups that collectively detect every hydrocarbon tested, including queen and worker-enriched CHCs. This broad-spectrum sensitivity is conserved in a related species, Camponotus laevigatus, allowing these ants to detect CHCs from both nestmates and non-nestmates. Behavioral assays demonstrate that these ants are excellent at discriminating CHCs detected by the antenna, including enantiomers of a candidate queen pheromone that regulates the reproductive division of labor.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Insect, Arthropod, Olfactory receptor neuron, Olfactory receptor, Ant, Hymenoptera, Termite


Facultative parthenogenesis, seen in many animal phyla, is a reproductive strategy in which females are able to generate offspring when mating partners are unavailable. In some subsocial and eusocial insects, parthenogenesis is often more prevalent than sexual reproduction. However, little is known about how social cooperation is linked to the promotion of parthenogenesis. The domiciliary cockroach Periplaneta americana is well-suited to addressing this issue as this species belongs to the superfamily Blattoidea, which diverged into eusocial termites and shows facultative parthenogenesis.

Concepts: Human, Male, Reproduction, Asexual reproduction, Sexual reproduction, Cockroach, Parthenogenesis, Termite


Many dynamical networks, such as the ones that produce the collective behavior of social insects, operate without any central control, instead arising from local interactions among individuals. A well-studied example is the formation of recruitment trails in ant colonies, but many ant species do not use pheromone trails. We present a model of the regulation of foraging by harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) colonies. This species forages for scattered seeds that one ant can retrieve on its own, so there is no need for spatial information such as pheromone trails that lead ants to specific locations. Previous work shows that colony foraging activity, the rate at which ants go out to search individually for seeds, is regulated in response to current food availability throughout the colony’s foraging area. Ants use the rate of brief antennal contacts inside the nest between foragers returning with food and outgoing foragers available to leave the nest on the next foraging trip. Here we present a feedback-based algorithm that captures the main features of data from field experiments in which the rate of returning foragers was manipulated. The algorithm draws on our finding that the distribution of intervals between successive ants returning to the nest is a Poisson process. We fitted the parameter that estimates the effect of each returning forager on the rate at which outgoing foragers leave the nest. We found that correlations between observed rates of returning foragers and simulated rates of outgoing foragers, using our model, were similar to those in the data. Our simple stochastic model shows how the regulation of ant colony foraging can operate without spatial information, describing a process at the level of individual ants that predicts the overall foraging activity of the colony.

Concepts: Time, Insect, Ant, Foraging, Pheromone, Forage, Termite, Ant colony