Managing the risks and rewards of death in eusocial insects

Qian Sun, Kenneth F. Haynes, Xuguo Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Eusocial insects frequently face death of colony members as a consequence of living in large groups where the success of the colony is not dependent on the fate of the individual. Whereas death of conspecifics commonly triggers aversion in many group-living species due to risk of pathogens, eusocial insects perform cooperative corpse management. The causes and social context of the death, as well as feeding and nesting ecology of the species, influence the way that corpses are treated. The corpse itself releases cues that dictate the colony's response. As a result, social insects exhibit behavioural responses that promote disease resistance, colony defence and nutrient recycling. Corpse management represents a unique adaption that enhances colony success, and is another factor that has enabled eusocial insects to be so successful. In this review, we summarize the causes of death, the sensory detection of death and corpse management strategies of social insects. In addition, we provide insights into the evolution of behavioural response to the dead and the ecological relevance of corpse management. This article is part of the theme issue 'Evolutionary thanatology: impacts of the dead on the living in humans and other animals'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20170258
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1754
StatePublished - Sep 5 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


  • Behavioural plasticity
  • Burial
  • Cannibalism
  • Eusociality
  • Necrophoresis
  • Undertaking behaviour

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology (all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (all)

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