Social groups balance flexibility and robustness in their collective response to environmental changes using feedback between behavioural processes that operate at different timescales. Here we examine how behavioural processes operating at two timescales regulate the foraging activity of colonies of the harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex barbatus, allowing them to balance their response to food availability and predation. Previous work showed that the rate at which foragers return to the nest with food influences the rate at which foragers leave the nest. To investigate how interactions inside the nest link the rates of returning and outgoing foragers, we observed outgoing foragers inside the nest in field colonies using a novel observation method. We found that the interaction rate experienced by outgoing foragers inside the nest corresponded to forager return rate, and that the interactions of outgoing foragers were spatially clustered. Activation of a forager occurred on the timescale of seconds: a forager left the nest 3-8 s after a substantial increase in interactions with returning foragers. The availability of outgoing foragers to become activated was adjusted on the timescale of minutes: when forager return was interrupted for more than 4-5 min, available foragers waiting near the nest entrance went deeper into the nest. Thus, forager activation and forager availability both increased with the rate at which foragers returned to the nest. This process was checked by negative feedback between forager activation and forager availability. Regulation of foraging activation on the timescale of seconds provides flexibility in response to fluctuations in food abundance, whereas regulation of forager availability on the timescale of minutes provides robustness in response to sustained disturbance such as predation.
Keywords: Pogonomyrmex barbatus; collective behaviour; complex system; flexibility; foraging; interaction rate; regulation; robustness; temporal dynamics; timescale.