To Bee A Soldier

Social bees like the honeybee, have a well-defined career progression for the workers that staff their colonies. The youngest workers tend the larvae, tidy up the place and spend some time minding the entrance prior to going out on foraging duties. They have a lot of treasure stored up in terms of honey and pollen; hence they are a target for robbers.

Other bees may try and get in to steal some honey, but unless the colony is small and weak, the numbers available to play with the home turf advantage can usually keep out the riff-raff. Other social insects often have evolved a soldier caste to defend their colony and these are usually larger than the common or garden worker. So it seems that the strategies are either a larger citizens militia or a specialist army that has effective weapons.

There is an interesting situation in Brazil where a social bee, Tetragonisca angustula, has to face the world without a sting. It builds its nest with a wax tunnel entrance, which is some help with privacy, but it has a lot of trouble with a neighbor, Lestrimellita limao, who likes to rob it on a regular basis.

Grüter et al have been taking an interest in T. angustula and have observed that about 1% of the population are soldiers with 30% more weight (1,2). Their heads are smaller and they have bigger legs. The latter are, presumably, better for finely developed martial arts (they are also stingless.)

They adopt a dual strategy, some of them stand on guard on the entrance tube, ready to grapple with any L. limao that tries to sneak in, while the others hover around in the vicinity ready to make an early strike or supply reinforcements to struggling colleagues.


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