Cooperative policing behaviour regulates reproductive division of labour in a termite

Qian Sun, Jordan D. Hampton, Austin Merchant, Kenneth F. Haynes, Xuguo Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Reproductive conflicts are common in insect societies where helping castes retain reproductive potential. One of the mechanisms regulating these conflicts is policing, a coercive behaviour that reduces direct reproduction by other individuals. In eusocial Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps), workers or the queen act aggressively towards fertile workers, or destroy their eggs. In many termite species (order Blattodea), upon the death of the primary queen and king, workers and nymphs can differentiate into neotenic reproductives and inherit the breeding position. During this process, competition among neotenics is inevitable, but how this conflict is resolved remains unclear. Here, we report a policing behaviour that regulates reproductive division of labour in the eastern subterranean termite, Reticulitermes flavipes. Our results demonstrate that the policing behaviour is a cooperative effort performed sequentially by successful neotenics and workers. A neotenic reproductive initiates the attack of the fellow neotenic by biting and displays alarm behaviour. Workers are then recruited to cannibalize the injured neotenic. Furthermore, the initiation of policing is age-dependent, with older reproductives attacking younger ones, thereby inheriting the reproductive position. This study provides empirical evidence of policing behaviour in termites, which represents a convergent trait shared between eusocial Hymenoptera and Blattodea.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20200780
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1928
StatePublished - Jun 10 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • eusociality
  • neotenic reproduction
  • policing behaviour
  • reproductive conflict
  • termites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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