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Open Access Research article

Adaptive dynamic resource allocation in annual eusocial insects: environmental variation will not necessarily promote graded control

Oliver Mitesser1*, Norbert Weissel2, Erhard Strohm3 and Hans-Joachim Poethke1

Author Affiliations

1 Field Station Fabrikschleichach, Universität Würzburg, Glashüttenstr. 5, D-96181 Rauhenebrach, Germany

2 Biozentrum (Zoologie III), Universität Würzburg, Am Hubland, D-97074 Würzburg, Germany

3 Institut für Zoologie, Universität Regensburg, Universitätsstr. 31, 93040 Regensburg, Germany

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BMC Ecology 2007, 7:16  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-7-16

Published: 19 December 2007



According to the classical model of Macevicz and Oster, annual eusocial insects should show a clear dichotomous "bang-bang" strategy of resource allocation; colony fitness is maximised when a period of pure colony growth (exclusive production of workers) is followed by a single reproductive period characterised by the exclusive production of sexuals. However, in several species graded investment strategies with a simultaneous production of workers and sexuals have been observed. Such deviations from the "bang-bang" strategy are usually interpreted as an adaptive (bet-hedging) response to environmental fluctuations such as variation in season length or food availability.

To generate predictions about the optimal investment pattern of insect colonies in fluctuating environments, we slightly modified Macevicz and Oster's classical model of annual colony dynamics and used a dynamic programming approach nested into a recurrence procedure for the solution of the stochastic optimal control problem.


1) The optimal switching time between pure colony growth and the exclusive production of sexuals decreases with increasing environmental variance. 2) Yet, for reasonable levels of environmental fluctuations no deviation from the typical bang-bang strategy is predicted. 3) Model calculations for the halictid bee Lasioglossum malachurum reveal that bet-hedging is not likely to be the reason for the graded allocation into sexuals versus workers observed in this species. 4) When environmental variance reaches a critical level our model predicts an abrupt change from dichotomous behaviour to graded allocation strategies, but the transition between colony growth and production of sexuals is not necessarily monotonic. Both, the critical level of environmental variance as well as the characteristic pattern of resource allocation strongly depend on the type of function used to describe environmental fluctuations.


Up to now bet-hedging as an evolutionary response to variation in season length has been the main argument to explain field observations of graded resource allocation in annual eusocial insect species. However, our model shows that the effect of moderate fluctuations of environmental conditions does not select for deviation from the classical bang-bang strategy and that the evolution of graded allocation strategies can be triggered only by extreme fluctuations. Detailed quantitative observations on resource allocation in eusocial insects are needed to analyse the relevance of alternative explanations, e.g. logistic colony growth or reproductive conflict between queen and workers, for the evolution of graded allocation strategies.