May 29, 2023
Study: Termite queen and king are the best parents in the world, until they're not

Study: Termite queen and king are the best parents in the world, until they’re not

From the laboratory of Thomas Chouvenc, one of the royal couples is caught taking charge of the newborns. Credit: University of Florida

Studying the parental behaviors of termites has given a University of Florida scientist a rare look at how a queen and king pair pushes the limits of parenthood.

The result is a look at how the queen and king work harder as parents during the early life of the colony, to ensure that their first offspring make it, and then to retire from parental duties.

Thomas Chouvenc, assistant professor of entomology at the UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, published new research in the journal Functional Ecology. The study sheds light on an altruistic parental behavior in a destructive pest that is partly responsible for the $40 billion a year in termite damage to structures worldwide.

“Scientists often think of termites as these complex societies, where the workers take care of everyone, including the queen and the king,” Chouvenc said. “This is true in developed colonies, but in establishing colonies, the new queen and king are the most valuable parents.”

Termites start a colony with two winged termites, which flew out of their original colony, Chouvenc explained. Once they find each other, they shed their wings and isolate themselves to mate and start a new colony, he said.

In termites, a new colony is under “biparental” care, where a new queen and king, who are both responsible for everything. As workers emerge, the colony shifts to “allogonic” care, where the role shifts to older offspring to provide care for younger siblings.

For the study, Chouvenc used 450 subterranean termite colonies (Coptotermes) in the initial stages of establishment. Chouvenc examined the timing of physiological changes in the queen and king during the transition from biparental to allogeneic care.

In the study, Chouvenc’s findings show that pairs of kings and queens relentlessly care for their first brood to the point where the parents are nearly exhausted. The queen and king later shift responsibilities to their first offspring once the children show readiness, as functional workers.

This change allows the queen and king to give up all caregiving duties and focus only on reproduction, increasing worker production, resulting in remarkable colony growth.

“During this critical period, most unpredictable queens and kings fail to establish and die,” he said. “These winged termites leave their nest with limited resources and have a quest to start a new colony. The queen and king form a lifelong monogamous relationship and must produce the first offspring on their own.”

The study also shows that this pair’s parental duties last only a few months, Chouvenc explained. Once the first workers are produced, the queen and king become completely dependent on them and stop caring for the newly laid eggs.

“In a way, termite royals start out as the most devoted parents, but when their first children can take care of the next batch of eggs, they retire from that duty forever and focus only on producing more eggs while the colony grows even bigger. . taking care of a growing workforce,” he said.

“This study highlights the importance of parental care in the emergence of insect societies, and future comparative studies among other termites and ants may reveal how these societies became dominant ecosystem engineers over millions of years of evolution,” said Chouvenc.

More information:
Thomas Chouvenc, Eusociality and the transition from biparental to allogeneic care in termites, Functional Ecology (2022). DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.14183

Provided by the University of Florida

Reference: Study: Termite queen and king are the world’s best parents, until they aren’t (2022, November 8) retrieved November 9, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11-termite- queen-king-parents-world.html

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