Daniel Hellyer's talk about social insects drew a crowd to the Nakusp library.

The most social creatures

Insect-lovers were treated to Daniel Hellyer’s examination of series-parallel organization on Wednesday night.

During Nakusp’s unofficial insect week the town was treated to back-to-back nights that explored the wonderful world of crawling and flying creatures.

After Lynn Westcott’s bee presentation Tuesday, insectophiles were treated to Daniel Hellyer’s examination of series-parallel organization on Wednesday night. Series-parallel organization is the kind of co-operation that seems to spontaneously occur in highly social colonies.

Instead of a picture of a bee hive, however, the slideshow started with some pictures from Hills back in the 70s. Hellyer named the hard-working long-haired Hills Angels ball team in the slide as well as the local Doukhobor communities as examples of groups that were able to accomplish a lot without an imposed central authority.

These organizations, like their insect versions, are highly social groups who focus many worker on the same task, with workers switching tasks as needed.

Hellyer began the journey into co-operative insect societies with a tour of termite architecture. These durable feats of construction are massive, relative to the size of a termite. If termites were human-sized, Hellyer told the audience, one cathedral-shaped termite structure would have stretched from the library to the hospital, and would have been as tall as Saddleback Mountain. Master architects on their own scale, termites construct colonies to include farms, where they cultivate fungus.

The next builder insect featured were wasps, generally thought to be a nuisance by humans, but capable of creating incredible nests out of pulp and mud. Because they are pollinators, feeding on the rich nutrition found in flower nectar, their evolution is intimately linked to the evolution of flowers.

From wasps came bees, whose evolution in tandem with flower is well known. Bees survive on pollen and nectar, rich sources of sugars, protein and trace minerals.

Ants also descended from wasps, and are probably the strongest creatures on earth relative to their size. Hellyer showed a picture of a five-gram ant holding a 50 gram weight, and said that was equivalent to a human hanging from the ceiling while supporting a pick-up truck.

Ants, like bees, communicate information through the exchange of food. The food that they feed to each other lets all the members know what the state of the colony is. A German study  that fed a radioactive tracer to an anthill found that there was not a single ant out of a million or so that did not contain the tracer 24 hours later.

Impressive for a culture without facebook.

Ants are also farmers, milking aphids and growing fungus, and some species construct incredible nests using extremely innovative tools.


Hellyer wrapped up his talk with the statistic that while only four per cent of insects are social, half of the total number of insects in the world are social insects. Clearly, working together has advantages.



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