The ecosystem services provided by social insects: traits, management tools and knowledge gaps
ELIZALDE, LUCIANA; ARBETMAN, MARINA; ARNAN, XAVIER; EGGLETON, PAUL; LEAL, INARA R.; LESCANO, MARÍA NATALIA; SAEZ, AGUSTÍN; WERENKRAUT, VICTORIA; PIRK, GABRIELA I.
WILEY-BLACKWELL PUBLISHING, INC
Social insects, i.e. ants, bees, wasps and termites, are key components of ecological communities, and are important ecosystem services (ESs) providers. Here, we review the literature in order to (i) analyse the particular traits of social insects that make them good suppliers of ESs; (ii) compile and assess management strategies that improve the services provided by social insects; and (iii) detect gaps in our knowledge about the services that social insects provide. Social insects provide at least 10 ESs; however, many of them are poorly understood or valued. Relevant traits of social insects include high biomass and numerical abundance, a diversity of mutualistic associations, the ability to build important biogenic structures, versatile production of chemical defences, the simultaneous delivery of several ESs, the presence of castes and division of labour, efficient communication and cooperation, the capacity to store food, and a long lifespan. All these characteristics enhance social insects as ES providers, highlighting their potential, constancy and efficiency as suppliers of these services. In turn, many of these traits make social insects stress tolerant and easy to manage, so increasing the ESs they provide. We emphasise the need for a conservation approach to the management of the services, as well as the potential use of social insects to help restore habitats degraded by human activities. In addition, we stress the need to evaluate both services and disservices in an integrated way, because some species of social insects are among the most problematic invasive species and native pests. Finally, we propose two areas of research that will lead to a greater and more efficient use of social insects as ES providers, and to a greater appreciation of them by producers and decision-makers.