The evolution of agriculture in insects

Ulrich G. Mueller, Nicole M. Gerardo, Duur K. Aanen, Diana L. Six, Ted R. Schultz

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

448 Scopus citations


Agriculture has evolved independently in three insect orders: once in ants, once in termites, and seven times in ambrosia beetles. Although these insect farmers are in some ways quite different from each other, in many more ways they are remarkably similar, suggesting convergent evolution. All propagate their cultivars as clonal monocultures within their nests and, in most cases, clonally across many farmer generations as well. Long-term clonal monoculture presents special problems for disease control, but insect farmers have evolved a combination of strategies to manage crop diseases: They (a) sequester their gardens from the environment; (b) monitor gardens intensively, controlling pathogens early in disease outbreaks; (c) occasionally access population-level reservoirs of genetically variable cultivars, even while propagating clonal monocultures across many farmer generations; and (d) manage, in addition to the primary cultivars, an array of "auxiliary" microbes providing disease suppression and other services. Rather than growing a single cultivar solely for nutrition, insect farmers appear to cultivate, and possibly "artificially select" for, integrated crop-microbe consortia. Indeed, crop domestication in the context of coevolving and codomesticated microbial consortia may explain the 50-million year old agricultural success of insect farmers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)563-595
Number of pages33
JournalAnnual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics
StatePublished - 2005


  • Attini
  • Macrotermitinae
  • Mutualism
  • Symbiosis
  • Xyleborini


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