Understanding insect societies with Bengaluru-based Raghavendra Gadagkar

Understanding insect societies with Bengaluru-based Raghavendra Gadagkar

In the complex world of insects, particularly ants, bees and wasps, we see some of the most complex and highly organised societies in nature. These organisms live in sophisticated colonies that sometimes mirror and often surpass the social structures of other species. “Among these, bees are the most famous not only for their complex social behaviour but also for their vital practical importance to humans,” said Bengaluru-based ecologist Raghavendra Gadagkar while discussing insect societies with visitors at the Science Gallery in Bengaluru recently.

Long before humans extracted sugar from sugar cane or beets, honey was our primary sweetener. “Bees collect nectar from different colonies, making the concept of 'pure honey' inaccurate. When collected from the same colony, honey can have a different flavor, such as an orangey or floral taste.”

“Natural honey is resistant to mould growth, thanks to the careful care taken by the bees inside the hive. Once outside, it loses this quality.”

Bengaluru-based ecologist Raghavendra Gadagkar

Bengaluru-based ecologist Raghavendra Gadagkar | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Feathered wonders

There are 10 to 15 species of bees around the world, of which there are four major dominant types – three are native to India, while the fourth is European. Interestingly, bees were not native to America or Australia; they were brought over by European immigrants.

A honeybee colony, with 10,000 to 60,000 bees, operates with a clear division of labor. The queen bee, the sole egg-laying bee, is the heart of the colony. A few male drones focus on mating, while worker bees perform various tasks. The queen bee has attendants who feed, clean, and care for her, ensuring she can focus on laying thousands of eggs. This care system helps maintain the solidarity of the colony.

Unlike bees, ant colonies often consist of specialized castes that vary considerably in size and function. This division of labor is evident in species such as the Malaysian ants, which show great differences in size between workers and soldiers.

“The size of the soldier is about 500 times larger than the worker,” Raghavendra said. Ants also display sophisticated behaviors such as seed collection and colony defense, and have been the subject of extensive study due to their decentralized organization and efficiency. Their ability to perform specific tasks based on environmental cues and colony needs has inspired fields such as computer science, especially optimization algorithms.

yellow paper wasps

Yellow paper wasps | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Azeem Khan Ronnie, Gail Hampshire

Wasps, though less socially organized than bees or ants, are fascinating architects. Paper wasps build complex nests from chewed plant fibers mixed with saliva, ranging from open structures to concealed multi-story complexes. Hornets, a type of social wasp, build large, closed nests and are known for their aggressive defense tactics.

Raghavendra explained how his research focused on social insects, especially wasps. He used a variety of techniques to observe these insects in their natural habitats, as well as in controlled laboratory settings. “You don't have to go to the forest. They come to your home, your garden and build their nests. They are quite active here,” he said.


One of the most interesting findings from their research was that workers react very quickly to the absence of a queen. Within half an hour of removing the queen, a significant change in behaviour is observed. An individual worker comes to the fore, displays extreme aggression and activity, taking on a leadership role in the absence of the queen.

Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, 11/07/2018: A bee feeding on a flower at Tenneti Park in Visakhapatnam on July 11, 2018. Flowers in full bloom after monsoon rains provide an ideal place for bees. Photo: K.R. Deepak

Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, 11/07/2018: A bee feeding on a flower at Tenneti Park in Visakhapatnam on July 11, 2018. Flowers in full bloom after monsoon rains provide an ideal habitat for bees. Photo: K.R. Deepak | Photo Credit: Deepak K.R.

Dividing the colony, the researchers observed excessive activity in the first worker, who became hyperactive enough to assume the leadership role. This indicated a complex, layered structure where multiple individuals were vying for leadership, influenced by circumstantial factors. Discontent within the colony could lead to the founding of a new nest. The researchers observed both single and group migrations, with new queens selected through democratic processes.

Research on social insects has far-reaching applications, from improving telecommunications and robotics to enhancing artificial intelligence. By understanding how insects communicate, organize, and function efficiently, scientists develop better algorithms and systems. These studies also provide insights into natural selection and evolutionary biology, with altruistic behaviors such as the self-sacrifice of honeybees providing profound examples of evolution shaping complex social behavior.

IMG Jewel Wasp 2 1 7MCBIM3U

The complex societies of bees, ants and wasps demonstrate the wonders of natural evolution and adaptation. Their sophisticated communication systems and specialized roles within colonies fascinate and inspire advances in science and technology. Each discovery in this dynamic field gives rise to new questions, perpetuating the cycle of discovery and increasing our understanding of the natural world.

Honeybees in India

There are three varieties of honeybees in India – the Asian dwarf honeybee is small in size, making small, open nests on tree branches; Apis cerana (also called the beekeeper's bee) nests in cavities. They are often kept in wooden boxes by beekeepers. The giant honeybee is larger and more aggressive and makes large open nests.

Anoplolepis gracilipes or yellow crazy ants, on moss

Anoplolepis gracilipes or yellow crazy ants, on moss

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