Incredible Insects and Their Complex Social Structures

Insects like honeybees, ants, and termites have evolved to develop complex social structures. These insects use a hierarchical system that divides their labor to make the most of individual contributions.

Jul 10, 2023By Nancy Schaffer
insects complex social structures

Humans like to think that they are the most highly evolved species in the world, but that’s debatable when you consider the complex social structures of insects.

In these incredible insect societies, individuals are able to communicate and cooperate with each other to ensure the success of their species. Keep reading to learn more about three types of insects that work together to survive and thrive.


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Of all the organisms, honeybees have one of the most complex social structures. They live together in large colonies of up to 80,000 individuals. These colonies are made up of workers, drones, and one queen.

The Hierarchy of Bee Colonies

Bee colonies have a caste system, where each level plays a role in the colony's survival. There is a single queen, and her job is to lay eggs. She also regulates the hive and signals when it’s time to swarm and make a new hive.

About 15% of the hive is made up of drones, the only males in the beehive. They don’t have stingers, and only live for one season. Their only purpose is to reproduce with the queen.

queen bee
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Worker bees make up the rest of the colony’s population, and they are all female. Their roles include the following:

  • Foraging for food
  • Cleaning the hive
  • Nursing the larvae
  • Taking care of the queen
  • Building the honeycomb
  • Guarding the hive

Essentially, the worker bees are responsible for everything that doesn’t involve reproduction.

The Role of Pheromones

Pheromones are used by many organisms, including animals, plants, and insects. Insects use pheromones to communicate in a hidden way. Some scientists think that humans also use these chemical substances to communicate.

Many types of insects use pheromones to attract mates, warn each other about dangers, and help each other find food. In beehives, the queen emits a special kind of pheromone called the Queen Mandibular Pheromone (QMP). These are distinct scents that worker bees use to determine if the queen is healthy or needs replaced. When the queen’s QMP levels drop, the worker bees create a new queen.

Solitary Bees and Parasitic Bees

Many people know about the complex social structure of bees, but did you know that over 90% of bees are solitary bees? They build their own nests and live alone, and because they don’t produce honey that needs to be protected, they are not aggressive.

cuckoo bee
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Some types of solitary bees don’t even build nests. For example, the cuckoo bee is a brood parasite. Brood parasitic bees lay their eggs in a host’s nest, and their offspring develop on the food supplies in the nest. Because there isn’t enough food for both to survive, the parasite must kill the host’s offspring to survive.


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Ants belong to the same order as bees and wasps, Hymenoptera. This large order of insects is largely comprised of parasitic insects, but social hymenopterans such as ants and honeybees evolved to take advantage of the many benefits of living in a large colony. Like honeybees, ants divide the responsibilities of individuals in the colony, and there are queens, drones, and workers, all having different jobs to do.


Eusociality is considered the highest form of organized society, and it is rarely seen in the evolution of species. Social hymenopterans like ants and honeybees are primary examples, but eusociality is also used by other insects, mammals, and crustaceans. There is a considerable amount of controversy about whether humans qualify as eusocial creatures.

Characteristics of Eusociality

The three characteristics used to define whether a species is considered eusocial include cooperative brood care, division of labor, and overlapping generations. Since ants exhibit all these characteristics, they are considered eusocial.

Cooperative brood care - When organisms cooperate with each other to raise their offspring, it’s known as cooperative brood care. In some cases, like with ants, this means caring for members of society that don’t reproduce.

ants cooperating
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Division of labor - Eusocial organisms like honeybees and ants live in colonies and use a caste system to divide their labor and responsibilities. Labor is divided into reproductive and non-reproductive tasks.

Overlapping generations - Within the colonies of eusocial insects, there are adult members from at least two overlapping generations. Humans are an example of a species that has overlapping generations.


termite mound
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Eusocial behaviors first emerged in termites. Termites belong to the Blattodea order, which is separate from ants, wasps, and bees. Like ants, wasps, and bees, termites use division of labor, cooperative brood care, and overlapping generations.

Like the social hymenopterans, termites also use pheromones to control their social structure and communicate with each other. Termites build their own nests and usually live underground. The location of their nest depends on what their food sources are and how they protect themselves.

The Termite King

One of the biggest differences between termites and the social hymenopterans is that termites have a king. Termite nests have a single king and queen, and it takes both to reproduce and build the population of a termite nest.

There is a lot of mystery about king termites. Like the queen, they are important for reproducing and controlling the swarming of nests, but more studies are required to understand them further. They are difficult to study because once they meet, they burrow deep into the center of the nest. They are well-protected by soldier termites, so they are rarely seen.

termite nest
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Different Types of Termite Nests

Termites live in large colonies with millions of individuals. While many of them live in subterranean nests, there are species of termites that live in nests above ground. Some species, such as Formosan termites, are able to build their nests above ground or below ground.

The above-ground nests that Formosan termites build are called cartons. They are often found in the walls of houses infested by termites. Termite damage is costly. In the United States, over $30 billion in damages to homes and crops are caused by termites each year.

Nancy Schaffer
By Nancy Schaffer

Nancy is a dog lover with a special place in her heart for Labradors. She has been surrounded by dogs her whole life and now has two of her own - a chocolate named Betty Belle and a black Lab named Darcy Bear. Nancy’s love for dogs began at a young age, and she has always been drawn to this breed’s friendly and affectionate nature. When she's not snuggling with her pups, Nancy can be found hiking or camping with her dogs. They are always ready to go outside!