The Kindness of Strangers: Genetic Diversity Within Social Insect Colonies



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It is generally believed that high relatedness between sisters, a characteristic of the hymenopteran method of sex determination, is what allows this insect order to build harmonious social organizations. However, at least in the most complex of the species, growing empirical evidence is showing that selection favors high levels of genetic diversity between colony members. Genetic diversity within a colony can be increased either through polyandry (mating with multiple males), polygyny (multiple females providing workers for a single colony) or genetic recombination. High within-colony genetic diversity has been shown to increase colony survival and foraging ability in ants, bees, and wasps. Higher diversity in response thresholds is assumed to be a major cause of these increases, and to lead to more resilient colonies. But, response thresholds are not the only intrinsically variable factors. I discuss studies of, and propose two hypotheses for, ways in which behavioral diversity due to genetic diversity can benefit a colony. I also outline techniques for testing these hypotheses, and present the Californian harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex californicus, as an ideal test subject.



social insects, ants, diversity, hymenopteran