Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Cutthroat politics, insect-style

Another U.S. presidential campaign has come and gone. Every four years we go through the throes of choosing the individual entrusted to lead these 50 states of the USA. We vote. Casting our ballots is one of the hallmarks of a country where the statement "We the People" is held dear.

We also use the ballot box to decide which people should hold other offices. We elect U.S. senators and congressmen. We select state governors and state legislators. Mayors, county councilmen, judges, sheriffs and even an occasional dogcatcher are put in place by the one-person, one-vote process.

By the time we get to exercise our cherished privilege of voting, we have endured many months of campaign rhetoric. Paid political advertisements, candidate debates, yard signs, letters to newspapers, opinion polls, and even advice from grandma are designed to influence our candidate choice. It is a costly and mind-numbing process.

queen bee
Honey Bee Queen and Workers

Insects also have the need to put new leaders in place. Social insects have queens that are the rulers of the colony. Insect queens don't live forever, even though some have very long lives when compared to other insects. Honey bee queens can live four to five years. Mound-building termites of Africa have queens that are reported to live up to 50 years.

In spite of a long life relative to their loyal subjects, social insect colonies do have to replace rulers from time to time. Insects don't vote for new rulers or for anything else, for that matter. So the transition of power in the social insect colony is accomplished through other means - some of which equal the dirty tricks that sometimes haunt human political campaigns!

Leadership in the honey bee colony is a matriarchal kind of thing. Here's how the system works. The queen of the colony has only one function - to lay eggs. She is really good at her job. On an average day during the egg-laying season, a honey bee queen can deposit 2,000 eggs. That means the queen produces an egg every 45 seconds or so all day long. That feat is more remarkable when you consider that the queen has to inspect a cell in the comb to ensure its suitability, prior to depositing the egg.

Fertilized eggs hatch into grubs that will become female bees. Unfertilized eggs of honey bees become males, which are called drones. Whether or not the female grub develops into a queen or a worker depends on the type of food it consumes during development. Worker bees, which serve as nursemaids, determine the food that each grub receives. Thus, the workers dictate which of their sisters become queens and therefore pretenders to the throne.

But there is more to the story. Several new queens are generally produced at the same time in a hive. This results a situation similar to having several candidates declare for the same political office when only one from each party can compete. So the contending candidates must be narrowed to one in some way. Think of our political system and nominating conventions.

In the hive it happens this way. The first queen to emerge seeks out other queens and stings them to death before they emerge. If by chance two queens emerge at the same time they fight a duel to the death. It is a winner-take-all scenario! But the spoils will go to the victor only if she can successfully complete a mating flight and return to the hive.

If that happens, an orderly transition of power begins. The queen mother abdicates the throne in favor of her daughter. The former queen and an entourage of loyal workers leave and seek a new home to call their own. This process is known as swarming.

Ant Queen and workers
Ant Queen and Workers

Ants are another group of social insects that sometimes engage in behaviors that resemble those of humans running for political office. For instance, there is a species of ant that only survives when a queen parasitizes the nest of another species of ant. The parasitic ant manages to get into the nest by adorning herself in the odors of that nest and bribing guards with a gift or two. Does that sound a bit like a politician changing positions and buying favors as the need dictates?

Once into the nest, the invading queen then works her way to the queen chamber. There the invader manages to behead the resident queen. The perpetrator of the evil deed then assumes control, and the workers begin to raise her offspring. Cutthroat politics, for sure!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox