Robert Hanus

Insect societies are probably the most complex and best organized life forms on this planet, sometimes referred to as superorganisms. Social insects dominate most terrestrial ecosystems due to their widespread distribution, their total biomass largely outnumbering that of humans, and their ecological significance with bees as principal pollinators, ants as major predators, and termites as fundamental agents in the turnover of plant material and soils. In other words, the social organization of ants, wasps, termites and bees is not only an admirable peculiarity but also a very successful strategy with a great ecological and economic importance.

One of the common characteristics of social insects is their ability to produce a rich variety of chemicals in a multitude of secretory organs – over one hundred different exocrine glands have been described as yet in social insects. These glands produce first of all a complicated network of pheromone signals, implicated in practically all aspects of the social life. Besides this central role in communication, the exocrine chemicals are extensively used in other activities, inherent to insect societies, such as nest building, feeding, and, last but not least, the chemical defence against competitors, predators, parasites and pathogens. In short, the success of insect societies is based on chemicals.

Our research is built on two main concepts. First, modern-day chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology are excellent tools for understanding the insect societies and thus the complexity of life in one of its extreme forms. And second, insect societies represent an inexhaustible source of new chemicals with unknown physico-chemical and biological properties and underlying biosynthetic processes. Our research projects consider both of these concepts, aiming to unravel unknown aspects of biology of the social insects and to describe new insect-produced compounds, their functional significance, biogenesis and the enzymatic apparatus involved.

Web stream of the Coptotermes formosanus termite colony in Robert Hanus Lab cultures