What can we learn from the farming insects?

April 12, 2016, Santa Fe Institute
What can we learn from the farming insects?

Farming evolved independently in humans at least nine times. The practice was among the innovations that enabled complex civilizations to develop. But we weren't the first species to raise our own food: various leafcutter ants, termites, and beetles have been cultivating other organisms for millions of years.

Such analogous behavior piqued the interest of SFI External Professor Peter Peregrine, a Lawrence University anthropologist who develops datasets and tools to analyze behavior and culture over time. "If you can hit upon an adaptation that's a really good one, like agriculture, then you're apparently tremendously successful [as a species]," he says, pointing out that both humans and live everywhere on Earth.

A "typical broad-ranging SFI conversation over lunch" some years ago uncovered farming parallels between humans and various , he says, enough to prompt him to propose a working group of archaeologists, entomologists, and evolutionary biologists.

The group, Convergent Evolution of Agriculture in Insects and Humans, first met in August 2014 to discuss the evolution, fundamental practices, and social effects of farming. This week the group has reconvened at SFI with empirical data on this topic and on species' agricultural practices, including managing substrates, mutations, weeds, and pests. Other compelling topics may also be explored. (An intriguing social note: human health is known to have declined as agriculture arose – might insects have faced similar impacts?)

Not surprisingly, comparing impacts of agriculture on or between insect is markedly tricky. "For humans, we have a record of the way things were before and how it looks afterward," Peregrine says. "Agriculture in ants is 50 million years old." Despite the paucity of before-and-after pictures of farming insects, their success (often with mono-crops) might offer insights into how to improve our own techniques, he says.

Explore further: Study finds more social insects have weaker immune response, highlights role of hygiene

Related Stories

Uncovering the evolution of queen-worker ant differences

April 12, 2016

Queen and worker ants develop from the same sets of genes, but perform completely different ecological roles. How the same genes result in two types of individuals is an ongoing mystery. In the past, scientists have only ...

Fungus-growing ants selectively cultivate their crops

December 10, 2014

Ever since agriculture evolved ca 10.000 years ago, plants have been artificially selected to become the fast growing and highly productive varieties we know today. However, humans were not the first to see merit in cultivating ...

Recommended for you

Scientists ID another possible threat to orcas: pink salmon

January 19, 2019

Over the years, scientists have identified dams, pollution and vessel noise as causes of the troubling decline of the Pacific Northwest's resident killer whales. Now, they may have found a new and more surprising culprit: ...

Researchers come face to face with huge great white shark

January 18, 2019

Two shark researchers who came face to face with what could be one of the largest great whites ever recorded are using their encounter as an opportunity to push for legislation that would protect sharks in Hawaii.

Why do Hydra end up with just a single head?

January 18, 2019

Often considered immortal, the freshwater Hydra can regenerate any part of its body, a trait discovered by the Geneva naturalist Abraham Trembley nearly 300 years ago. Any fragment of its body containing a few thousands cells ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.