A modeling framework for adaptive collective defense: crisis response in social-insect colonies

M. Gabriela Navas-Zuloaga, Kaitlin M. Baudier, Jennifer H. Fewell, Noam Ben-Asher, Theodore P. Pavlic, Yun Kang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Living systems, from cells to superorganismic insect colonies, have an organizational boundary between inside and outside and allocate resources to defend it. Whereas the micro-scale dynamics of cell walls can be difficult to study, the adaptive allocation of workers to defense in social-insect colonies is more conspicuous. This is particularly the case for Tetragonisca angustula stingless bees, which combine different defensive mechanisms found across other colonial animals: (1) morphological specialization (distinct soldiers (majors) are produced over weeks); (2) age-based polyethism (young majors transition to guarding tasks over days); and (3) task switching (small workers (minors) replace soldiers within minutes under crisis). To better understand how these timescales of reproduction, development, and behavior integrate to balance defensive demands with other colony needs, we developed a demographic Filippov ODE system to study the effect of these processes on task allocation and colony size. Our results show that colony size peaks at low proportions of majors, but colonies die if minors are too plastic or defensive demands are too high or if there is a high proportion of quickly developing majors. For fast maturation, increasing major production may decrease defenses. This model elucidates the demographic factors constraining collective defense regulation in social insects while also suggesting new explanations for variation in defensive allocation at smaller scales where the mechanisms underlying defensive processes are not easily observable. Moreover, our work helps to establish social insects as model organisms for understanding other systems where the transaction costs for component turnover are nontrivial, as in manufacturing systems and just-in-time supply chains.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number87
JournalJournal of mathematical biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • Collective behavior
  • Collective defense
  • Mathematical biology
  • Social insects
  • Task allocation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Applied Mathematics


Dive into the research topics of 'A modeling framework for adaptive collective defense: crisis response in social-insect colonies'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this