Constraints on foraging success due to resource ecology limit colony productivity in social insects

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The benefit of group living is a fundamental question in social evolution. For sociality to evolve, each individual must gain in terms of some fitness component by living in larger groups. However, in social insects, a decrease in per capita success in brood production has been observed in larger groups. While it has been proposed that this decrease could be outweighed by an increase in the predictability of success, a functional basis to this hypothesis has so far never been demonstrated. In this paper, using foraging economics as a functional proxy to colony productivity, we construct a model to explore how number of foragers in the colony interacts with the ecology of resources to influence per capita foraging success and its predictability. The results of the model show that there is no increase in per capita foraging success in larger colonies under most circumstances, though there is an increase in its predictability. We then test the model with empirical data on the foraging behavior of the primitively eusocial wasp, Ropalidia marginata. The consistency between the data and the model suggests that foraging economics could provide a robust functional basis in explaining the relationship between colony size and productivity.

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