A computational model of task allocation in social insects: ecology and interactions alone can drive specialisation

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Social insects allocate their workforce in a decentralised fashion, addressing multiple tasks and responding effectively to environmental changes. This process is fundamental to their ecological success, but the mechanisms behind it are not well understood. While most models focus on internal and individual factors, empirical evidence highlights the importance of ecology and social interactions. To address this gap, we propose a game theoretical model of task allocation. Our main findings are twofold: Firstly, the specialisation emerging from self-organised task allocation can be largely determined by the ecology. Weakly specialised colonies in which all individuals perform more than one task emerge when foraging is cheap; in contrast, harsher environments with high foraging costs lead to strong specialisation in which each individual fully engages in a single task. Secondly, social interactions lead to important differences in dynamic environments. Colonies whose individuals rely on their own experience are predicted to be more flexible when dealing with change than colonies relying on social information. We also find that, counter to intuition, strongly specialised colonies may perform suboptimally, whereas the group performance of weakly specialised colonies approaches optimality. Our simulation results fully agree with the predictions of the mathematical model for the regions where the latter is analytically tractable. Our results are useful in framing relevant and important empirical questions, where ecology and interactions are key elements of hypotheses and predictions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143–170
Number of pages28
JournalSwarm Intelligence
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 22 Feb 2020


  • Game theory
  • Simulation
  • Task allocation

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