Social Insects, Communication, And Learning
Communication is a vital tool for exchanging information among social insects, to help reduce the uncertainty about important aspects of colony life: resource locations, colony member identities and the nutritional needs of the entire colony. Recent research indicates that colony workers differ greatly in how they produce and respond to particular signals. In this paper, two researchers from Germany set off to review the available literature and discuss how individual workers show flexibility in the way they communicate, highlighting the role of learning as a major factor in the life of social insects.
As it turns out, different experiences lead to different workers having different information, which naturally also results in workers being motivated differently and thus fulfilling different functions within the colony. Insects searching for a food source, for example, will not always relay what they’ve found to their peers. Only resources of certain quality induce producing a signal. This should not be too surprising to us, as we also often perceive value by comparing the item in question to some reference – usually an expectation or a previous experience of ours.
Honey bees do just that and even take it a step further – when they learn of a risky food source, not only do they stop recruiting fellow bees but they also inhibit the communication among others by sending ‘stop’ signals. When discussing risk, there are parallels to how we do things yet again. Bees might be investing more time to decode signals when failing to get precise information is likely to be more costly.
In the context of foraging, communication among insects is very helpful when the resources are difficult to find. In fact, some ants were found to be more likely to lay pheromone trails if they had made navigational mistakes during previous trips, or upon finding that a food location has changed. Upon arrival, both ants and bees tend to start informing their co-colonists only after a few visits, as information about the resource accumulates and ambiguity diminishes. Furthermore, there is even evidence suggesting that ants become better leaders with experience.
Trusting one’s gut might not concern solely humans, it appears. Many social insect workers who have visited a new location or learned of its value will often disregard information received from others, and prefer to follow their own memories. On the other hand, should one’s private information about the location of a food source become unrewarding, then the insect forager makes more use of available social information.
The researchers highlight that, despite the fact that learning definitely affects whether social insects produce or rely on signals, very little is currently known about whether insects learn about the meaning and value of the signal itself. However, there is some evidence suggesting that learning about meaning shapes communication in social insects. For example, upon not finding a food source at the specified location, bees may learn that following the signaller’s directions does not lead to rewards and reduce their dependence on that type of social information. Some emerging research even shows that social insects eavesdrop on other species. Although understudied, such behavior raises interesting questions. Do such ‘species pairs’ also learn to interpret alarm signals from one another, for instance?
Since the public often perceives insects as non-intelligent automata, it is crucial for animal advocates to make use of such in-depth studies and portray a more realistic picture of what it is to be an insect. Impressively, the review reveals that learning plays a major role in many aspects of social insect communication: signallers learn what resources are worth advertising, when to do so, and even how to signal more accurately, and receivers use the information to decide when and whether to follow signals at all and what type of social information to take into account.