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Abstract

To investigate division of labour in Reticulitermes fukienensis, worker and larval subgroups were established in laboratory cultures and task performance patterns of different-sized workers and larvae were recorded. Five categories of subgroups were established based on head width differences: small larvae (SL); large larvae (LL); small workers (SW); medium workers (MW); and large workers (LW). Subgroups were compared for their ability to carry out the following tasks: tunnel construction; covered gallery construction; gallery repair; and feeding. Larval subgroups were found to carry out none of the tasks investigated. They did not feed or build covered galleries or underground tunnels. Temporal polyethism occurred among workers of different size groups. Covered foraging galleries were exclusively built and tunnels were predominantly built by older workers (i.e. MW and especially LW). Remarkably, most SW were apparently unable to burrow into the soil, something that all LW did within 3 d and 95% of MW did within 5 d. Surprisingly, LW ate 8.5 and 65.5 times as much food (i.e. filter paper) as MW and SW, respectively, although their average body weights were, respectively, only approximately two and four times that of MW and SW. MW carried out all four tasks that LW performed, although MW were typically less efficient. This contrasts with the hypothesis that different instars of termites should carry out different non-overlapping tasks.

Large workers carried out most of all tasks compared with other worker sizes. The only exception was for gallery repair where repair rate by LW did not differ significantly from MW. The predominance of tasks carried out by larger (i.e. older) workers indicates a possible new pattern for division of labour in these lower termites. This contrasts with the pattern of organization of division of labour in the social Hymenoptera.