Interview with a social insect scientist: Edith Invernizzi

IS

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

My name is Edith Invernizzi, and I am a Ph.D. student in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews (Scotland), studying collective behaviour and self-organisation. I am a theoretical modeller, mainly, but I believe that all models should be built in a constant feedback loop with real data. I try to integrate laboratory and field experiments in my work as much as possible.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

Since I started working on models for an undergraduate project, I have been interested in the evolutionary dynamics of behaviour. It’s this that ultimately led me to collective behaviour and ants in my Ph.D.

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

Ants, because of the immense ecological range this genus has been able to colonise. They are a perfect case study for different species that can independently evolve similar collective behaviour mechanisms when the environmental context is different.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

I’m very early on in my research, so I have a limited range of experiences to draw from. But I do know what the best moment has been. When I started looking at social insect collective nest building, I came to the hypothesis that self-organised activity could be seen as continuous assessment of the environment, a homeostatic mechanism in response to constant fluctuations. I then discovered the body of literature that proposes precisely that frame of interpretation. I felt that I was learning how to understand behavioural data and, most of all, that my way of understanding was meaningful to other scientists.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

I personally do not do much outreach, but I try focusing on how social insects make collective decisions whenever asked about my research by a non-scientist. I think decision making is a fascinating behaviour that every human can relate to, but that is often considered only from an individual perspective. I try to use this example to give a different point of view.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

The importance of individual-level variation when we think of colonies and eusocial species. There are suggestions that behavioural variation within a colony causes different individuals to exploit different resources. Similarly, in behaviours such as collective building, workers with varying levels of susceptibility to different cues might initiate changes in the structure that are important for short-term adaptation. I suspect that understanding the role of within-group variation is not only crucial for helping disentangle environmental adaptation but also has potential applications in fields such as robotics and engineering – for instance, in Ant Colony Optimisation (ACO) algorithms.

From a ‘genetics versus plasticity’ perspective, it is interesting to study how much of this variation derives from allelic genetic differences, in poly-mated queen or multiple-queen colonies, and how much from epigenetic factors. For intra-colony competition, the question becomes evolutionary: is there an ‘optimal’ level of inter-individual variation that maximises colony fitness? How might mating systems, genetic and epigenetic mechanisms have evolved under selection to reach and maintain such level?

To start scratching the surface of these questions, we need more tools that facilitate individual identification and individual behaviour records. Developing more advanced movement and ethological tracking methods (the latter automatically tracking behavioural events in a video recording), for example, is essential if we want to obtain a large amount of data with reliable sample sizes and make this fine level of individual detail in group behaviour studies the norm. More behavioural studies done in the field are also necessary to match the observed variation to the multiple factors that it might respond to, in a complex environmental context.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

Probably the questions about cognition. How advanced are insect cognitive capacities? Are we underestimating them or overestimating them? What is the relationship between individual cognition and collective cognition at eusocial colony-level?

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

A Time for Everything, by K.O. Knausgaard. If you are into rational psychological analysis and minute behavioural details but still like to find an overarching narrative when you look at life experiences, then Knausgaard is the author for you.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies or sports?

I practice martial arts, read contemporary literature, and enjoy planning exciting activities. I prefer a good stand-up comedy show, live or on TV, over a holiday trip anytime.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

When nothing seems to work, I remind myself that science and my Ph.D. are only one aspect of my life, and I try to put more energy into others. If I meet a wall in my research, then I create something else or break down a barrier elsewhere. Working on other projects just remind me that I can produce an output I am enthusiastic about and renew my creativity.

In tough times, it is focusing on what I find exciting about the work, the goal, or the challenge that keeps me going. But I must schedule some fun activities throughout the week that break the tension and give me fresh energy; a good climb or stand-up comedy always do the job.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

A Swiss knife, a water flask, and a diary with a pen attached to it. The first two for surviving and the third one to keep my sanity. I enjoy spending time alone, and if I have the time, I might as well keep track of my thoughts.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

Definitely my undergraduate supervisor and master’s co-supervisor, R.T. Gilman. He has given me a passion for dissecting dynamics, and he is the one who introduced me to modelling.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

Be patient. Be passionate. And always work with a behavioural scientist if you are a theoretician. They bring you down from your matrices into the real world.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

I did my Master of Philosophy fieldwork in the area around Lugu Lake, in South Western China. It is close to the most beautiful place I have ever been to, and I hope that its landscape and culture have remained unspoiled.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Graham Birch

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

GB: My name’s Graham. I’m a master’s graduate from the University of Exeter, coming to the end of a year working as a volunteer research assistant in South Africa for the Kalahari Meerkat Project. I’ll be starting a Ph.D. back at Exeter in September on Banded Mongooses.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

GB: I’ve always been interested in sociality and how it’s evolved, and ants specifically can form such huge and complex groups, with multiple distinct castes. Many species are intensely territorial, with group size and make-up largely determining success; therefore, conflict may have been a significant driver in the evolution of ant societies. But the threat of competition is not necessarily ever-present and being ready for battle all the time may be wasteful, so an intriguing question is whether coordination and behaviour of these complex groups can plastically respond to the level of threat in the local environment in response to cues, which is the subject of our paper.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

GB: Termites moult multiple times before reaching their adult forms, but some primitive species can moult backward in time to a younger form! They’re therefore able to plastically change their development in response to the colony running out of resources. They can also switch development between different castes if they like to a certain extent, which I just find super cool.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

GB: I haven’t done too much of my own research so far, but I (but mostly my dad) did start a meme where scientists left Amazon reviews for items they used in their research (but not based on the intended purpose). Started when we had the idea of using tea strainers to protect ants we introduced into another colony, and my dad left a review about how great a capsule for ants these tea strainers were (anything to get his ranking up!), which the tea drinking public found a bit odd/hilarious. It became the top review, started a twitter trend of other scientists leaving similar reviews, which got picked up by The Washington Post (easy to find on Google!). I even did a couple of phone interviews. It was all very surreal but definitely memorable!

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

GB: Again it’s a bit early in my career to answer this question, but I have lead turtle conservation tours in North Cyprus, and Meerkat research tours in the Kalahari, which did involve communicating the science of what we were doing to the public. I hope to do some demonstrating and maybe teaching during my Ph.D.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

GB: Broadly the big issue, not just for social insects, is climate change. Does the level of sociality mean these species are more able to shift their ranges or, if they can’t, can they deal with new competitors or enemies that can (as well as changes in temperature itself), over other less social species?

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

GB: I fear I may be a bit naive at my career stage and may not have enough experience on social insect research generally (beyond group conflict) to comment on this. However, what I have found to be controversial is the definition of eusocial when looking at non-insect taxa. For example, there was a lot of buzz about naked mole rats being the first eusocial mammal due to their large groups and division of labour among reproductives and workers, but recently many have turned against this. You could even say the same for humans where, even though we don’t have fixed caste determination, we have orders of magnitude larger and more complex societies then eusocial insects in terms of numbers and the division of labour we see in the variety of jobs we can pursue. Maybe it’s just unhelpful to use the term for non-insects.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

GB: Ultrasociety. Phenomenal book looking at how human societies have changed and evolved from egalitarian hunter-gathers to incredibly unequal archaic societies led by God kings, to how religion and war shape these into the relatively more equal modern societies we see today.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

GB: Badminton, swimming, diving, and travelling.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

GB: Try to not have your research as the only focus taking up all of your time. Get involved in a sport, volunteer, or just something to focus on that isn’t science / your degree, so when you do get stuck you have something else to work on that refreshes you for when you come back to your science.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

GB: Anyone at the Kalahari Meerkat project, or who went with me on my expedition to Madagascar over a year ago, can vouch for me when I say I’ve almost already done this, but on the island of an isolated research base (days of travelling away from the nearest major town with no communication with the outside world in the case of Madagascar). Anyways, I’d bring a Kindle with a vast library of books so I can read to pass the time, a snorkel and fins (since I’m on an island I might as well enjoy the marine life), and a Camelback so that I don’t have to carry a water bottle around in my hands.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

GB: Again, I’m very early into my career, BUT I would have picked a Natural Science degree rather than Zoology at Exeter if I hadn’t read the Selfish Gene and Extended Phenotype during the summer before year 11. This made me incredibly passionate about evolution, especially of behavioural strategies. I am so thankful I made that decision, so for that alone, Richard Dawkins.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

GB: Well, I’m not exactly old myself… but just read some books about behavioural ecology/evolution and see if you get hooked. If you do and find yourself on a zoology or similar degree, read up on the profiles/publications of all of the lecturers at your university and seek the ones that share your interests / get involved! Do this early, and you may be working with them on your thesis later on and perhaps beyond.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Anindita Brahma

Anindita Brahma (2)

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

AB: I am Anindita Brahma, recently completed Ph.D. from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and currently I am a Marie Sklodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellow at Queen Mary University of London. My primary research interest is understanding the proximate and ultimate causes of the evolution of social behaviour.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

AB: I developed a general liking for animal behaviour during my college days as a bachelor’s student. During my master’s studies at the University of Calcutta, my mentor gifted me a book named ‘Survival Strategies’ by Raghavendra Gadagkar. This book changed my perspective about studying animal behaviour, especially social behaviour, and it deterred me from almost plunging into immunology. I became curious about the author and his works, and a few months down the line I ended up joining his lab as a Ph.D. student. 

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

AB: Well, although recently I have started working on ants, wasps were my first love. They are such a fascinating combination of beauty and danger (because their sting is excruciating!), and I find their social behaviour intriguing, especially that of the non-temperate primitively eusocial ones. Also, my Ph.D. thesis revolved around a primitively eusocial wasp (Ropalidia marginata), and maybe because of this, wasps will always have a soft spot in my heart. However, I am now venturing into the world of ants, and I am looking forward to investigating and learning many exciting and awe-inspiring things about them.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

AB: My entire Ph.D. was quite eventful. However, by far, the best moment has been the time when I was running an experiment to understand the dynamics of gaining direct fitness through natural nest foundation by workers of the Ropalidia marginata. One beautiful day during my daily behavioural observations, I saw that some workers had aggregated outside the nest and involved in aggressive interactions, after which they returned to their nests and behaved “normally”. Soon, a few of the aggregating wasps left their nest and initiated a new nest together. That was a ‘eureka moment’ for me as before this we had no idea that worker wasps interact and plan to leave the nest way before they actually leave it. Moreover, now I can proudly say that such shrewd planning would put any politician to shame!

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

AB: During my Ph.D., I taught animal behaviour to undergraduate students, and I used love answering all the interesting queries they had about the ways of life in the animal kingdom. I also love to explain my research to my friends, acquaintances, school and college students, many of whom do not have the faintest idea about animal behaviour and evolutionary biology. I find it essential to use simple language without any technical jargon and provide analogies and relatable examples from day-to-day life to make research ideas more accessible.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

AB: I think the current important questions in social insect research are related to understanding the evolution of eusociality. The transition from solitary ancestors to a social form and the successful maintenance of this derived social form still has many mysteries that are yet to be unfolded. For this, we need to have a holistic approach, and I think that it can be achieved by combining carefully-designed behavioural experiments with molecular tools and computational techniques.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

AB: I think one of the biggest debates in social insect research is still the one started by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E.O. Wilson with their paper on the evolution of eusociality (Nowak, M.A, Tarnita, C.E and Wilson E.O. 2010. The evolution of eusociality. Nature. 466 pp 1057-106). The authors of this particular paper claimed that the haplodiploidy hypothesis (which has been the basis for sociobiology research for decades) has failed and that the focus has been given to the relatedness (r) part of the r>b/c inequality compared to the benefit and cost parts. They go on to claim that the kin selection theory is not a general one, doesn’t provide much biological insight, and that standard and much simpler natural selection models are adequate to explain altruistic behaviour. Following the publication of this article, there have been vigorous debates among the social insect researchers on the question of the importance and necessity of W.D. Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness. As a matter of fact, there has been a series of interesting commentaries (links to these commentaries are provided at the end of this post) on this issue portraying that Nowak et al.has indeed provoked social insect researchers everywhere.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

AB: I recently finished reading ‘Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome’ by the Nobel Laureate, Venki Ramakrishnan. This book is a memoir of his research life and his contribution to unravelling the structure of the ribosome, and he describes what does it mean to “do scientific research”. I found this book fascinating as it takes you through the journey of a researcher’s life, which is no less than a roller-coaster ride. The book describes the frustrations and struggles in the life of a researcher as well as the little joys and the rare ‘eureka moments’ that motivate a researcher to strive on and dig deeper to try and understand a phenomenon. Moreover, his informal and witty writing style is something that makes this book relatable. I would strongly recommend that everyone read this book and take a moment to ponder the nature of science and scientific research.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

AB: I love to read all kinds of fiction and non-fiction books, and my idea of a perfect lazy day is a book and a hot cup to tea. Another passion of mine is music. I have been trained in Hindustani classical music since childhood, and I love listening to a wide variety of music and sing whenever I find the time. 

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

AB: When things get tough (which is quite a common scenario in research life), I think about the little moments of joy and laughter, a few incidents that motivates me not to give up, and try to calm down and focus. Also, if these do not work out, then I have always found that speaking my heart out to a friend and/or a mentor helps me to a great extent! 

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

AB: 1) Drinking water, 2) a tent, and 3) books (lots and lots!). Drinking water because I would not survive without that, tent for shelter, and books because there cannot be a better way to spend time when one gets to stay away from civilisation.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

AB: This person is undoubtedly my Ph.D. supervisor, Prof Raghavendra Gadagkar. He has been an inspiration throughout, and I could not have asked for a better mentor. Not only did I learn the basics and ethics of scientific research from him but also that research is not about costly equipment, but the logic behind framing a question and the elegant and detailed design of an experiment.

IS: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

AB: Social insects are elegant and unusual. Some of them may not look “cute” in the first instance but believe me, once you start knowing them, they will reveal a whole new world of intelligence in front of you and will amaze you every step of the way. Working with social insects requires much patience, but at the end of the day when you observe them or even maintain them and care for them, it gives you an immense sense of satisfaction.

Links to the Commentaries

Sociobiology in turmoil again

Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality

Kin selection and eusociality

Only full-sibling families evolved eusociality

Inclusive fitness in evolution

In defense of inclusive fitness theory

Nowak et al. reply

Interview with a social insect scientist: Nathan Lecocq de Pletincx

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IS: Who are you and what do you do?

NLP: My name is Nathan Lecocq de Pletincx. I am a Ph.D. student in the Evolutionary Biology and Ecology unit of the ULB (Université Libre de Bruxelles). I am working in the group of Serge Aron on the evolution of reproductive strategies in ants. More specifically, my research focuses on population and colony genetic structure in connection with the hymenopteran sex determination system.

 

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Two Ocymyrmex robustior workers interacting outside the nest.

 

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

NLP: I have always been interested in the origin and evolution of sociality. Watching documentaries on a great diversity of social animals, I discovered how fascinating their behaviour is. Later, I developed a keen interest in reproductive strategies after learning the existence of original primary modes of reproduction (queen thelytoky, hybridogenesis, etc.) in several ant species. As Hymenoptera combines sociality and a great diversity of reproductive strategies, I decided to work on this biological model for my Ph.D.

Ocy_Queen_Dev

Ovaries of a non-mated ergatoid queen, showing active ovaries with ovules, yellow bodies, and an empty but swollen spermatheca.

 

IS: What is your favorite social insect and why?

NLP: Ants are fascinating models to study the causes and consequences of sociality and reproductive strategies. In fact, social structure, dispersal strategy, mode of reproduction, ecology, and mode of sex determination are so many characteristics that can interact directly or indirectly and vary significantly between species. Further, studying the causes and consequences of all these features is facilitated by the ease to rear and manipulate ants in the lab.

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A worker of Ocymyrmex robustiorat the entrance of the nest.

 

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research and what’s essential for future research?

NLP: I think the evolution of cooperation and of its most complex form, eusociality, has yet to be better understood. Numerous ‘mathematical’ models detailing the mechanisms at the origin of cooperation and eusociality have been proposed. In my opinion, it would be interesting to test these hypotheses ‘on the biological side’. Finding species matching our needs is essential to future research. On the other hand, the consequences and correlates of cooperation and eusociality have been better studied. However, there is still a lot to do, especially in the field of molecular genetics. Pursuing the development of molecular techniques and tools to analyse big data sets is crucial for future research.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favourite activities, hobbies or sports?

NLP: I practice athletics a lot and bike regularly. I also like to read and learn new things about training methodology in sport. Spending time with my family is also of great importance to me.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

NLP: For me, the best way to pass through difficult periods is by doing sport. There is no better way to relax than to train hard and go home with the feeling of having had a good session.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

NLP: I think teachers are of great importance because the way they teach influences and helps shaping our vision of the different topics we study. The animal behaviour, genetics, and molecular and cell biology courses I have taken have had a great impact on my way of thinking.

Accessing the file drawer of experienced researchers: joint interviews with Bert Hölldobler and Robert Page

Every day, thousands of papers in various research fields are published. Some of them receive lots of attention, while others remain unnoticed. Simultaneously, thousands of studies are not even submitted to journals because the results are insignificant or the authors think the work does not add sufficient new knowledge to their research field. In these joint interviews by Insectes Sociaux and Myrmecological News, Bert Hölldobler and Robert E. Page Jr. share some interesting insight about their own research and why some studies did not result in papers. Here, you will read the interview with Dr. Robert Page. Also, check out the corresponding interview with Dr. Bert Hölldobler!

Founders Day-Robert Page

IS: Dr. Page, as you look back on (and are still proceeding with) a fantastic career in social insect research, roughly how many papers have you published so far?

RP: I have published about 250 papers so far, including reviews and book chapters.

IS: Which of your papers received the most widespread attention? Did you expect this?

RP: The honey bee genome sequence paper in Nature in 2006 is by far the most cited, but I was one of a million authors, and it is basically a resource paper. I expected it to be the most cited.   Next is the Cell paper I published with Martin Beye in 2003.  I also expected it to be cited a lot because it is probably the most important paper I’ve been a part of.  It also represents a long hard struggle in my lab and Martin’s spanning about 7 years, and a question I actually started working on in 1980.  My 4thmost cited paper is one I published in Experimental Gerontology with Christine Peng in 2001.  It was a review article on a subject I knew little about but was picked up and has been cited 300 times.  I never would have figured that.

IS: Have you published any papers that you think received insufficient attention from the scientific community? If so, can you give us an example?

RP: I have several, but I know why they didn’t receive the attention I thought they should.  I tend to undersell my work.  I don’t go for high impact journals, just because they are high impact.  I try to publish in the journal that is appropriate for the audience I am trying to reach.  Often that is an audience of specialists.  I also tend to publish places that let me present all of the data and methods.  In the long run, the ability to repeat someone else’s work is the hallmark of science, and you need to provide your data.  And, hypotheses and current trends in what is perceived as exciting science come and go, but bad data stand forever.  So, I try to present all of the data as best I can so they can stand whether my ideas do or not.

IS: What do you think is the main reason well-designed studies go unnoticed by the scientific community?

RP: Science today is like a collection of infomercials.  If you don’t package it right and sell it in the right venue, it goes unnoticed.  I guess I am an old fogey about this, but I believe it.

IS: Have you completed studies of which you have not published the results even though you consider them relevant? To how many projects or datasets does this apply over your career, approximately?

RP: Yes of course. I don’t believe in “do an experiment, write a paper.”  The objective of science in my mind is to contribute to an understanding of something. Sometimes experimental results obfuscate our understanding, not improve it.  Usually, more experimentation will fit the pieces together and lead to an understanding, but sometimes you don’t get back to it, so it sits in the filing cabinet, or in an electronic file on your computer desktop.  I have many incomplete studies sitting there.

IS: Do your unpublished datasets have anything in common? Why did you not publish them? Was it ever due to a lack of statistical significance?

RP: As I said in the previous question, it is usually because I can’t figure out how the results fit into a bigger understanding.

IS: Does the field of social insect research generally suffer from gaps due to data not being published?

RP: No, I think too much is published too soon.  We would be better off with fewer papers that actually resolve something.

IS: What do you think is the general trend over time concerning the amount of unpublished data? Stable, decreasing, increasing?

RP: I really don’t know about other people.  I think mine increased over time because as I got older and had more of a focus on specific questions that I wanted to answer, I became more demanding that each paper contributed to an understanding.

IS: Would you be willing to share any or all of these unpublished data so that others could learn from them or profit in any other way? If so, what might be a good platform for this? Do you think that, for example, a database could be set up for such data?

RP: That is a difficult question.  My idea about bad data lasting forever actually came from Darwin.  Often there are reasons data don’t get published, often it is a lack of confidence in them.  Something peculiar in the methods, or an environmental anomaly when the experiment was conducted.  I don’t think any data should be shared on a public platform that isn’t completely reliable and carefully screened.  If you do that, you should write the paper.

Book Review: The Ants of Central and North Europe

By Heike Feldhaar (University of Bayreuth, Germany)

Seifert Ants of Central and North Europe

Many people are fascinated by ants and their behaviour. Even children will often recognize these little busy-bodies that always seem to be determined to pursue their work. Ants have captured the attention of many hobby entomologists. At least in temperate regions of the world, they are an attractive and manageable group in terms of species number. However, species identification of ants is often difficult; in comparison to other insects, ants have seemingly fewer characters for easy identification, such as colour patterns of butterflies or bumblebees. Several ant genera, such as the Holarctic Lasius, Myrmica, or Formica, contain species that even professional myrmecologists have trouble identifying. Only a few very conspicuous ant species, such as Dolichoderus quadripunctatus or Lasius fuliginosus can be identified easily without magnifying glasses; many require some type of optical equipment. In the field, notes on the structure of nests or habitat features help to narrow down species identity.

A good guidebook should, therefore, include a workable key for species identification as well as an informative natural history section with detailed pictures. Bernhard Seifert’s The Ants of Central and North Europe (2018) provides precisely that. The book is divided into two major parts: a “General Part“ with an overview of ant natural history and ecology, and a “Special Part” with a key to all 180 species (for gynes and workers) occurring outdoors in Central and Northern Europe (and a few more that may expand their range into the region) and detailed natural history information for every species. Here, I describe the contents of these two parts in more detail.

The “General Part” (translated into English by Elva Robinson) comprises short chapters on the general morphology of ants, ecological aspects such as their habitats and nests, colony foundation and life cycles of colonies, social parasitism, natural enemies of ants, and feeding strategies. These feeding strategies include interactions of ants with trophobionts for honeydew consumption and seed dispersal by ants. This general part may be skipped by professional myrmecologists that are familiar with the general biology of ants and the corresponding terminology. For beginners, it lays the foundation for understanding the “Special Part” in which Seifert provides natural history details for every species.

The “Special Part” begins with a short introduction to ant determination and mounting, a list of the covered ant species (with a focus on Germany, Switzerland, Austria and South Tyrolia), a checklist of German ants with information on their distribution within Germany (occurrence in federal states, vulnerability and broad ecological niche), and an overview of their ecological preferences and tolerances. This table covers ~ 90 of the 180 ant species and is based on over 200 plots studied by Seifert in Central Europe during the years 1979–2015. It provides detailed information on temperature and humidity preferences and occurrence patterns with respect to plant cover. Thus, the three tables focus on the area where Seifert was most active himself, and less information is available on other areas of the geographic range covered in the book, such as Fennoscandia, Great Britain or Northern France. However, Seifert lists occurrences and ecology of species in these areas in the detailed species accounts. This part is followed by three short chapters where Seifert discusses methods of taxonomic delimitation of species (morphology vs. genetics), justifies the method used by him, numeric morphology-based alpha-taxonomy (NUMOBAT), and defends Linnean binomial nomenclature. These three chapters are part of an ongoing debate among taxonomists, and amateur myrmecologists will most likely skip these four pages.

Seifert then provides an identification key from subfamily to species level (for gynes and workers) for the 180 ant species with outdoor occurrence and nine Mediterranean species that will likely expand their range into Central and Northern Europe due to climate warming. Tramp species are also included, which are mostly found in warm buildings such as larger greenhouses. The key is illustrated with line drawings for many characters that allow for easy comparison of different character states. These drawings might be challenging for beginners, such as the detailed drawings of antennal scapes viewed from different angles of Myrmica workers, but once the reader has grasped the concept, these drawings are very helpful and allow identification to species level. The key works well for slightly advanced ant enthusiasts for the majority of species. For a few species, optical equipment with a micrometer is required; this will not be available to most amateurs, but this is a hurdle in all insect groups and not a failing of this book.

The key is followed by a detailed description of the life histories and profiles of all ant species covered in the book. Bernhard Seifert provides detailed information on the geographic range, habitat and ecology, abundance and nest structure, colony demography and population structure, as well as nutrition and behavior of all species (if known!). These natural history notes are beneficial to beginners and professionals alike. They contain most of the basic information known for each species and are referenced very well, which allows an interested reader to quickly find more details for each species (the reference section contains more than 1,000 references!). Thus, the book is a great starting point for myrmecologists who want to know about the natural history of a particular ant species. The life history and reference sections are substantially extended in comparison to the German book Die Ameisen Mittel- und Nordeuropas, which appeared in 2007 (Lutra Verlags- und Vertriebsgesellschaft), making it not a mere translation of the former.

Students, amateur myrmecologists, and specialists will appreciate Bernhard Seifert’s The Ants of Central and North Europe. The “General Part” provides an excellent overview of general ant ecology and natural history to enthuse amateur myrmecologists, whereas the keys might be challenging for beginners but are very helpful for specialists as they allow the identification of most ant species occurring in Central and North Europe. The extensive information on each ant species makes it an essential reference about ants in this geographic region for all interested readers – from beginners wanting to know more about ants to professional myrmecologists.

 

SAMSUNG CSC

Heike Feldhaar

 

Reference

Seifert, B. 2018. The Ants of Central and North Europe. – lutra Verlags – und Vertriebsgesellschaft, Tauer, Germany, 408 pp; ISBN 9783936412079 (hardcover), EU € 64.00.

In termites, the evolution of alate body size caught between two opposing selective forces

A blog post highlighting the article by T. Chouvenc in Insectes Sociaux

By Thomas Chouvenc

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Alates of Coptotermes gestroi emerging during a dispersal flight event, with soldiers guarding the exit holes.

Sexual selection and partner choice have been hot topics in behavioral ecology over the past few decades, as scientists have been investigating impressive cases of sexual dimorphism and extreme attributes both in vertebrates and arthropods. In some social Hymenoptera, the males are often reduced in size and function compared their female counterparts. The need for a massive accumulation of metabolic reserves in these males has decreased over evolutionary time as their role has been reduced to simple yet functional sperm missiles. In termites, such extreme reduction of the male size is not present (despite cases of significant sexual dimorphism): both the female and male are essential during colony foundation as they provide exclusive monogamous biparental care within the first few months of the life of the colony. The royal couple will then spend years, sometimes decades together, contributing solely to reproduction. One might argue that such lifestyle should promote the evolution of ‘picky’ mate selection.

However, during the dispersal flight and colony foundation of termites and many other eusocial insects, the potential for partner selection may be minimal due to the chaotic nature of mating swarms, when individuals only have a few minutes to find a partner and create an incipient colony or die. My anthropomorphic self likes to see it as an extreme form of speed dating. This mating behavior implies that being too choosy in mate preference would be counter-selected, especially when predation pressure is high. However, some lines of evidence suggest that ‘high quality’ primary reproductives could experience improved mating success, survival traits, fertility, and ultimately colony foundation success. Hence, despite an overall absence of mate selection, there could still be passive evolutionary selection for alate size or quality.

In termites, two main opposing selective forces may drive the evolution of the overall alate body size during colony foundation events.

The first selective force, as outlined by Nalepa (2011), is inherent to the biology of termites. Both the king and queen are monogamous partners, and each contributes to the biparental care of their first cohort of offspring. However, as the first functional workers emerge, the brood care duties irreversibly shift to the workers, resulting in constant alloparental care as the queen and king lose their ability to provide care for their brood (Chouvenc and Su 2017). Nalepa argued that in incipient termite colonies, the rapid switch from biparental care of the first brood to alloparental care of subsequent brood has resulted in reduced selection for the accumulation of large metabolic reserves in imagoes. As evidence for this, queen and king fecundity is maintained despite a relatively small body size (when compared to their ancestral wood roaches). The directional reduction of body size in termite imagoes may, therefore, have allowed mature termite colonies to increasingly invest into the number of alates to optimize their dispersal success rate.

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Young Coptotermes formosanus colony, where the workers have already taken over parental care duties.

The second selective force is opposite to the first one, as the limited metabolic reserves of relatively small termite alates during colony foundation leaves little room for inefficiency. The quality of the first brood is important for colony foundation success and the initial input from the queen and king are critical to jump-start the colony and improve its long term success within a highly competitive environment. Such pressure might incentivize mature colonies to invest in high-quality alates with enough internal metabolic resources to successfully produce their first cohort of functional workers during the incipient colony phase.

In dispersal fight events, Coptotermes gestroi alates may rapidly be killed by a wide range of predators. In this video, Pheidole megacephala was able to capture most alates that landed on trees or on the ground, which show how luck can be an essential factor on alate survival, independently of the quality of individuals.

In my 2019 study, I was able to take advantage of large dispersal flight events of Coptotermes gestroi (Rhinotermitidae) with high intracolonial and intercolonial variability in size to test the actual role of alate body size in colony foundation success and growth within the first nine months after foundation. I was able to measure 79% colony foundation success (n = 175), and most colonies that failed to establish had relatively small males and females, suggesting that mated pairs with relatively large individuals had a higher chance of surviving the first few months. This data suggests that, although the rapid transition to alloparental care in incipient colonies might reduce the need for accumulation of substantial reserves in alates, the mated pair still requires a bare minimum of initial metabolic resources to initiate efficient colony foundation and provide biparental care. Also, a positive correlation between the initial king and queen weights and colony growth was found despite high colony growth variability. Both the king and the queen initial weights were relevant for colony growth when considered separately, confirming the importance of biparental care, but when combined, only explained 27% of the observed variability despite highly standardized rearing conditions.

This study confirmed that during colony foundation in laboratory conditions, the initial weight of C. gestroi females and males plays a role in colony foundation establishment and initial colony growth rates. However, such laboratory results need to be placed in the perspective of the harsh conditions of field dispersal flights, where the vast majority of alates die rapidly and founding conditions are highly heterogeneous and hazardous. Therefore, the importance of alate weight may be secondary to many other environmental factors and luck. As previously suggested (Hartke and Bear 2011), sexual selection for large alate body size in termites during and after dispersal flights may be extremely weak and secondary to a wide variety of other selective pressures.

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Alates of Coptotermes gestroi emerging from a tree trunk by the thousands and ready to fly out.

Mating flights in C. gestroi termites can comprise hundreds of thousands of alates, and the large number of alates produced may be more relevant to the final number of established incipient colonies than the marginal advantage that relatively large alates may have during colony foundation. Such a reproductive strategy primarily relies on “inundative” dispersal flights, which may also have reduced the importance of alate weights during colony foundation. The trajectory of the reproductive strategy of a given termite species may partially be reflected in the size of their imagoes, an investment into reproduction which reflects the life history of the species. Over evolutionary time, termite colonies have optimized this quality/quantity trade-off in alate production, which varies among species.

In the light of its remarkable invasive abilities and its high colony establishment rate in the laboratory, C. gestroi may be a termite species that is able to efficiently optimize such balanced investment and adapt to various environmental pressures during dispersal flights and colony foundation.

References

Chouvenc, T., & SU, N. Y. (2017). Irreversible transfer of brood care duties and insights into the burden of caregiving in incipient subterranean termite colonies. Ecological entomology, 42(6), 777-784.

Chouvenc, T. (2019). The relative importance of queen and king initial weights in termite colony foundation success. Insectes Sociaux, 1-8.

Hartke, T. R., & Baer, B. (2011). The mating biology of termites: a comparative review. Animal Behaviour, 82(5), 927-936.

Nalepa, C. A. (2011). Body size and termite evolution. Evolutionary Biology, 38(3), 243-257.

Behind-the-scenes of the Insectes Sociaux best paper 2018

A blog post highlighting the article that received the prize for the best paper published in Insectes Sociaux in 2018 by Paul J. Davison and Jeremy Field.

By Paul Davison and Jeremy Field

 

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Jeremy at a Lasioglossum malachurum nest site in Spain

Paul’s Ph.D. focussed on the unusually varied social biology of sweat bees, which include eusocial species, solitary species and also socially polymorphic species. In socially polymorphic sweat bees, some populations have eusocial nests with a queen and workers, while in other populations of the same species all nests are solitary. Solitary populations are always found at cooler latitudes and/or higher altitudes than eusocial populations. Likewise, obligate eusocial species, in which nests always have queens and workers, never occur at the coolest latitudes or higher altitudes alongside solitary species or populations. The main element of the Ph.D. involved performing a field transplant to explore how the environment influences behaviour in a socially polymorphic sweat bee (for the results, see Davison & Field (2018) Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology 72:56).

 

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A Lasioglossum malachurum foundress resting by the entrance to her new nest in spring

 

We thus became interested in what limits the geographic distribution of eusociality in sweat bees. It has long been thought that once the growing season becomes too short, it is no longer possible to sequentially produce the successive worker and reproductive broods necessary for eusociality and the only option is solitary nesting. Noticing that this had not been tested experimentally, we thought it would be interesting to do just that. The best way would be to conduct another transplant, only this time of an obligate eusocial sweat bee far to the north of its natural range.

 

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Freshly removed buckets containing newly dug nests ready to be packed for transplant

 

We chose to transplant Lasioglossum malachurum, a well-studied obligate eusocial sweat bee that is restricted to the south and east of Britain. We wanted to investigate the reasons for this, and in particular whether it is related to the length of the season. Because of other fieldwork commitments, this project would have to be ‘smash and grab’, or ‘smash and transplant’. Jeremy had the ingenious idea of getting spring foundresses to nest inside plastic buckets and then transplanting them and their nests wholesale. To do this, we spent winter digging trenches adjacent to where the bees nested in southern England, filling buckets with the excavated soil then putting them back into the trench and filling in the gaps. In essence, digging holes and filling them in again! By transplanting buckets after nests had been initiated in spring but crucially before foundresses began provisioning, we could test how being in a northern environment with a shorter season would impact the eusocial lifecycle.

 

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Embedding buckets in the garden of the University of Aberdeen’s Lighthouse Field Station at Cromarty (Photo: Paul Davison)

 

We were generously allowed to embed our transplanted buckets in the garden of the University of Aberdeen’s Lighthouse Field Station at Cromarty in northern Scotland. Cromarty is much further north than where L. malachurum occurs naturally and is a place most people have only heard of thanks to the BBC Radio 4 shipping forecast. Nestled between the 1840s lighthouse and stunning Cromarty Firth, the bees would certainly have a good view if nothing else. Equally generously, since it involves hours of scraping away at a block of soil on a table and is incredibly messy, Paul was able to excavate the buckets in rooms owned by the Cromarty Arts Trust. We transplanted control buckets to the University of Sussex campus, well within the bee’s natural range. All that remained was to see whether driving the length of Great Britain with buckets of nesting sweat bees would pay off.

 

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Digging a hole adjacent to the Lasioglossum malachurum nest aggregation in southern England for embedding buckets (Photo: Paul Davison)

 

The results were unequivocal. When we excavated the nests eight weeks after transplanting them, first brood offspring at Sussex were all nearing the completion of development, whereas in Scotland most offspring were still tiny larvae that had not long hatched. We estimated that this represented a lag of approximately seven weeks behind Sussex and that, had they been left to complete development, the first brood in Scotland would not have emerged as adults until August! This would leave no time for workers to provision a reproductive brood successfully. We found that the time lag corresponded to differences in temperature, which is well known to influence the timing of bee activity and seems to have caused foundresses in Scotland to begin provisioning much later in the spring. Importantly, this reflects environmental constraints on provisioning behaviour rather than the strategic shift between social and solitary nesting seen in some socially polymorphic sweat bees (Field et al. (2010) Current Biology 20:2028-31).

 

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A Lasioglossum malachurum nest entrance with a red marked female sitting just inside the entrance

 

All in all, some intriguing results. Jeremy is planning to take this initial work further with more replicates and a detailed study of what exactly causes the time lag.

2018 Highlights from Our Community

Hello, social insect community!

2018 was productive for the social insect community, especially for Insectes Sociaux. As the new Social Media Editors, we have been enjoying collaborating with many social insect scientists on blog posts. Thank you for your contributions not only to making our journal great but also our blog, whether that’s through reading or writing! As 2018 came to an end and we were reflecting on the year, we reached out to past blog contributors to see what they’ve been up to. Here are some 2018 highlights from social insect scientists:

Kaitlin BaudierPostdoctoral Research Associate, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

You can find Dr. Baudier at kmbaudier.weebly.com and @AntGirl_KB. She also has a YouTube channel.

tropic course

IS: What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned about your study species in 2018?

KB: On the army ant front (pun intended) I learned a lot about bivouacs in 2018. It turns out that bivouacs of the most well-studied army ant (Eciton burchellii) do not strictly thermoregulate as was previously thought. At high elevations, we found that bivouacs selected different thermoregulatory strategies dependent on brood developmental stage. When ambient temperatures were low and bivouacs were filled with predominantly larvae, bivouacs would allow energy-conserving cooling. However, bivouacs rich in pupae were always kept warm regardless of ambient temperature. We report on this energy-saving strategy for coping with high elevation cold temperatures in our recent paper in Ecography. This was an interesting turn in our bivouac elevation project which we first published in Insectes Sociaux back in 2016.

2018 also marked my first work on the topic of nest defense in the stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula. This species is famous for having two types of nest entrance guards: hovering and standing guards. In our paper currently in revision at Behavioral Ecology, we report that task allocation between these two guarding jobs is age-dependent, with younger bees hovering guarding and older bees standing guarding. This was an unexpected and exciting finding in our study which had initially set out to collect task allocation data for a bio-inspired design project aimed at improving defensive swarm algorithms in unmanned aerial vehicles (Strickland et al. In Press). We also found that roaming Ectatomma tuberculatum ants use sit-and-wait predation to make a meal of these guard bees. Life for a guard bee can be rough.

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IS: What was your favorite conference and/or fieldwork experience?

KT: IUSSI 2018 in Brazil really blew the top off of my idea of what a great conference could be. Not only did I get a chance to speak with a multitude of established social insect biologists from around the world, but it was an excellent opportunity for me to meet a lot of amazingly dedicated students and to learn about their respective projects. I walked away from Brazil 2018 with more than a few new collaborators. As for fieldwork, I have been having an extremely positive experience working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama this past year. From my fieldwork in and around BCI and Gamboa to my returning to co-instruct the ASU Tropical Biology course at STRI in the summer, I have enjoyed getting to know the insects, the people, and the environment in Panama. As 2019 begins, I am already packing my field equipment for another trip back. Some days I can’t help but think that it doesn’t get any better than this.

 

Rachael BonoanPost-Doctoral Researcher, Tufts University and Washington State University

You can find Dr. Bonoan at www.rachaelebonoan.com and @RachaelEBee.

IS: What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned about your study species this year?

RB: This year, I started a post-doc studying the natural history of an ant-caterpillar relationship in a Pacific Northwest prairie. When it’s a caterpillar, the Puget blue butterfly, is protected by ants. In return for protection, the caterpillar secretes a sugary snack for the ants. As mentioned in my Interview with a social insect scientist, part of my job is to figure out which ants live on the prairie with my Puget blue caterpillars.

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With the help of two Tufts University undergraduates, Hanna Brush and Max McCarthy, we have identified ten species of ants on our field site! (Many thanks also go out to Stefan Cover at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and Chad Tillberg at Linfield College for help identifying and pinning specimens.)

So far, there are two dominant ant species on our prairie: Formica obscuripes (the Western thatch ant) and Tapinoma sessile (the odorous house ant). We have seen both tending Puget blue caterpillars, this bodes well for the baby butterflies!

The most exciting species we identified, however, is Ployergus mexicanus, also known as the raider ant or the pirate ant. The raider ant has sickle-shaped mandibles (mouthparts) specialized for kidnapping young from other ant colonies. The ultimate moocher, this ant species cannot feed itself or take care of its own young.

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After mating, a female raider ant infiltrates the colony of another ant species, typically a Formica species. The female raider ant subdues Formica workers with a specialized pheromone and promptly overtakes their queen. With the Formica queen out of the way, the raider ant queen is ready to begin her reign—she lays eggs that the Formica workers raise. With the help of their sickle-shaped mandibles, raider ant workers spend their days raiding other Formica colonies and kidnapping their young. This ensures that there will always be enough Formica workers to raise more raider ant workers.

IS: What was your favorite conference and/or fieldwork experience?

RB: This year, I attended two great conferences: Entomology in Vancouver, B.C. and Social Insects in the North East Regions (SINNERS) in Philadelphia, PA. While I enjoyed both conferences, SINNERS was held at the coolest conference venue: the Natural Academy of Sciences of Drexel University (a museum!). During the meeting, the museum had a fantastic exhibit: Xtreme Bugs! This exhibit celebrated “extreme insects” with giant, animatronic models of the amazing beats. My favorites were, of course, the leafcutter ants and the honey bee!

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Excellent venue aside, SINNERS is one of my favorite conferences. This relatively small conference (~50 speakers this year) gives you the opportunity to get to know social insect scientists! Since it’s a regional conference, SINNERS also a great meeting to find nearby social insect friends and collaborators. I met James Waters at SINNERS 2015, and we have continued to stay in touch! James and his students have visited my honey bees at Tufts (they even lent us a wireless temperature sensor for my research), and I have given a couple guest lectures in James’s classes at Providence College!

 

Tomer CzaczkesACElab Group Leader, University of Regensburg

You can find Dr. Czaczkes at animal-economics.com and @tomerczaczkes.

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IS: What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned about your study species this year?

TC: We started trying to train Drosophila to associate odours with food qualities. Man, those things are thick as glue! It gave me a real appreciation for our study species, Lasius niger – we found that these ants can learn an odour / food quality association reliably after just one exposure. I admit that perhaps the flies could learn that quickly if one used precisely the right method. Perhaps. So maybe rather than being thick, they are fiddly and delicate. Really makes me appreciate how robust and easy to work with our ants are.

 

The Insectes Sociaux editors have also been curious about our social media followers. To learn more about the kinds of scientists in our Twitter community, we recently put out a series of polls. Overall, we’ve learned that most of our followers study behavior and bees, and wish they had more time for fieldwork. Here are the results!

 

“We know all social insects are great, but what is your favorite?”

41% Bees

40% Ants

12% Wasps

7% Termites

 

“What do you predominantly study?”

51% Behavior

18% Ecology

6% Morphology

25% Combination of all of the above

 

“What component of your work do you wish you had more time for?”

49% Fieldwork

35% Publishing/writing

8% Teaching

8% Outreach / science communication

 

What have you been up to recently with your science? Do you have a comment or suggestion for our blog, social media presence, or journal? We would love to hear from you! Follow us and send us a message through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Happy new year! We hope you have fulfilling scientific endeavors in 2019.

Madison Sankovitz & Bernie WittwerSocial Media Editors, Insectes Sociaux

 

A high-speed camera reveals a new behavior of honey bees

A blog post highlighting the article by S. Łopuch & A. Tofilski in Insectes Sociaux

By Sylwia Łopuch and Adam Tofilski

 

The behavior of honey bees (Apis mellifera) still contains a plethora of mysteries. After many decades of research, bee communication is still not entirely understood. Efficient communication is particularly important for social insects such as honey bees because a single colony consists of tens of thousands of bees that need to cooperate to survive.

A high-speed camera may be beneficial to the study of social insect communication because it can record thousands of frames per second. As a result, high-speed video recording lets us see details that are undetectable to a human eye.

Observations of a few colonies of honey bees with the use of a high-speed camera revealed that the bees moved their wings in temporal and behavioral patterns within the nest. We housed colonies in observation hives (which consisted of two frames with bees placed behind glass walls) and recorded the bees’ behavior. The wings remained motionless most of the time. However, occasionally bees with folded wings performed a few wing beats. Interestingly, this behavior was observed not only in workers but also in queens and drones. The wing movements were detected most often during the swarming season (the reproduction period for honey bees). The queens performed this wing behavior only at that time. Similarly, drones vibrated their wings only during preparation for mating flights and when they were evicted from the nest by workers. The wing movements were observed most often in workers, which moved them both during the swarming season and outside of it (video). Workers moved their wings when they were in contact with a queen or another worker, including workers returning to the nest with food (pollen or nectar) and those guarding the nest entrance.

Our observation that the honey bees moved their wings when they were in contact with other bees led us to assume that the function of the wing movements is related to communication. We also recorded wing movements of dancing bees. Workers perform the waggle dance when they find an attractive source of food. After they return to the nest after foraging, they dance to transfer information to other nestmates about the location of the food source. It is possible that frequency of wing beats (the number of wing beats per second) and duration of episodes of wing beating transfer some information because these metrics significantly differed in queens, drones, and workers. The characteristics of the wing movements also depended on temporal context, differing in the swarming and non-swarming seasons. Therefore, wing movements may support communication based on vibrations in the darkness of nests where visual cues are ineffective.

In conclusion, high-speed video recording allows us to observe unknown behaviors of honey bees like wing movements and help us better understand their meaning.