Foraging and building in subterranean termites: task switchers or reserve labourers?

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Task-switching between foraging and building in workers of Nasutitermes exitiosus (Termitidae), a subterranean termite, was followed using mark-recapture. Foragers were collected from wood-filled drums and marked with Nile blue (ca. 12,500 per colony), whereas builders were collected from damaged sections of mounds and marked with Neutral red (ca. 18,500 per colony). Two protocols were followed: the first marked foragers and then damaged the mound; the second reversed this order. In the first protocol few foragers switched to building, i.e. blue-marked workers in mound samples, measured either as numbers (81 +/- 28) or proportion of originally marked (0.66 +/- 0.20%); whereas more than double blue-marked foragers remained foraging (222 +/- 64 workers or 1.76 +/- 0.44%). In the second protocol few builders had switched to foraging, i.e. red-marked workers found in the first drum sample (82 +/- 33 workers or 0.29 +/- 0.09%). Up to eight drums were sampled for foragers over about 80 days; the numbers of blue-marked workers decreased slowly (ca. 1.6 workers per day) whereas those of red-marked workers increased slowly (ca. 2.4 workers per day). These results suggest that relatively few termite workers switch directly between foraging and building. The possibility of builders being recruited from other tasks is discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)56-64
Number of pages9
JournalInsectes Sociaux
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2006
Externally publishedYes


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