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I've been playing with the idea of living nests for insects for a while now to help populate my worlds. The idea is that they don't build a static nest out of wood pulp and other material but have a literal living and breathing creature that they call their home in a symbiotic relationship. This isn't a simple cooperation where one creature allows the nest to be build on top of him for mutual protection, this is a full-blown "we share DNA" type of cooperation.

There's several things that I would like to know. Ignoring any evolutionary processes to get there, there's things like shape, who would ideally nourish who + how they do that, procreation, keeping the hive together and more.

This question focuses on the optimal shape, based on existing creatures right now. Such a cooperation would have some advantages and disadvantages. Having a warm nest that can find food and protect part of the hive during winter is great and can give a big advantage over hibernating queens that need to find a spot and build up their numbers. On the other hand having to help sustain this living and breathing hive is going to take a lot more work and the creature itself needs the space for the hive to function.

With rambling half-fluff out of the way, for an answer I'm looking for the following factors:

  • Space for most of the insects to reside for a short period of several days to survive extended travel or harsh weather.
  • Space for a small portion of the insects to live for a long period of several months during winter, only to be temporarily roused for short forages when the hive finds something (the remainder could simply die naturally or be absorbed for food).
  • The hive is based off a currently living creature to minimize the amount of guesswork necessary. In order to make the choice of creature less subjective: More space for the insects rules.
  • The insects offer an obvious advantage in the finding of food for the creature chosen. For clarification these insects can fly (walking insects would be interesting but change the answer).
  • The choice of the insects and creature being herbivores, omnivores or carnivores is yours.
  • The chosen creature offers an obvious advantage in the finding of food and survival of the insects it supports.
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    $\begingroup$ I'm imagining a human with no limbs. The digestive tract can basically be the same, and food is stored by the insects in the form of fat cells, etc.. but the function of arms and legs for capturing food would be performed by the insects themselves. Optimal shape: depends whether the hive needs to act to defend itself. If not, a blobfish has a big enough mouth for easy entry and all the necessary organs to support its parasites. Give it some lungs and set it on land, and the parasites depending on it can carry it around as needed. $\endgroup$ – boxcartenant Apr 10 at 18:08
  • $\begingroup$ You mean a bit like Army ant Bivouacs but with one creature forming the nest? $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Apr 10 at 18:12
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs Yes exactly! $\endgroup$ – Demigan Apr 10 at 18:29
  • $\begingroup$ @boxcartenant Something like that yes. I would prefer the creature, a human in your case, to remain as independend as possible. If you do make the arms useless they would be perfect blobs for storing a lot of the insects, giving protection, warmth, a way for bloodvessles to offer nutrition to the insect or vice-versa the insects offer food to the host during bountiful days. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Apr 10 at 18:35
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    $\begingroup$ "this is a full-blown "we share DNA" type of cooperation." Wouldn't this mean the hive-creature is just a really big bug? $\endgroup$ – ltmauve Apr 10 at 21:51
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A tortoise

Tortoises are protected by a thick shell, which would also protect a small hive. While this would require an expansion of the tortoise's shell it's not implausible for the turtle to be a bit underdeveloped for the shell size.

Even though tortoises are slow, its escort of insects is fast enough to kill flighty prey if carnivorous, can reach very tall fruits if herbivorous, or both if omnivorous.

Who nourishes who?

Well, it's probably preferable for the insects themselves to have their own digestive tracts. If the hive dies then the insects can continue to survive until they find/grow/morph another hive. However, feeding the hive directly would require a lot of effort on the part of the swarm. Also during winter or other weather (like storms) the hive may be more mobile than the swarm.

It'd be easiest and most reliable for the swarm to bring food into the reach of the hive and then the hive just walks over and eats it. So that's gnawing down fruit or bringing down prey so the hive just plods over and eats it.

Procreation

The swarm would obviously lay eggs in the spaces in the hive where they rest. Simple and effective.

Keeping the hive together

If insects can navigate back to the starting location, they could follow a scent trail left by the hive. There are already sun-based mechanisms used by bees for navigating - return to starting point is a solved problem for insects.

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  • $\begingroup$ Question: I assume you mean tortoises (exclusively land-based turtle species)? It would be difficult to inhabit a water-based version. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Apr 12 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, that. I'll change it. $\endgroup$ – ltmauve Apr 12 at 21:23
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Sloths.

There are already insects that live inside the fur of sloths:

A sloth moth is a coprophagous moth which has evolved to exclusively inhabit the fur of sloths (...)

But I think you want eusocial insects such as bees, right?

Imagine that insteaf of moths, sloths were home to wasps. Those [refacted due to be nice policy] are vicious and, unlike bees, are comfortable with spartan, minimalistic nests (when they don't use some living bug as nest + food).

The sloth will provide shelter, warmth, home mobility, and love (which wasps don't have on their own).

Wasps will pay their rent by stinging anyone and anything that threatens the sloth. Any few species that still hunt sloths will evolve to not hunt them anymore. I have never been stung by a wasp by I've been told it is extremely painful. In fact, some species have their stings on levels three and four of the Schmidt sting pain index:

Schmidt describes the sting of the warrior wasp as "Torture. You are chained in the flow of an active volcano. Why did I start this list?"

There is also risk of death to the allergic.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've been stung in my navel but I think the stinger didnt penetrate deep because it didnt hurt much, and I've been stung in the hollow of my knee which hurt but wasnt terrible. Native wasps apparently dont hurt much here. Is there any obvious advantage that the sloth gives the wasps compared to other creatures? So far you focused on what the wasps can bring the sloth. Although a home without a need to live literally inside the hive-creature is a good advantage I suppose. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Apr 11 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ @demigan the fur of the sloth is goof enough shelter that the wasps don't have to burrow into its flesh. $\endgroup$ – Renan Apr 11 at 10:11
  • $\begingroup$ yes that is what "Although a home without a need to live literally inside the hive-creature is a good advantage I suppose" means $\endgroup$ – Demigan Apr 11 at 10:13
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I think a land-based coral-like creature (might also be a plant) would work well as an symbiotic insect hive.

Similarly to corals this (stationary) creature lives of organic matter, which it gathers from its surroundings: using a paralyzing venom against (small) creatures that come near it, it can obtain food. It might also be able to digest other plants, using vines similar to poison ivy, and of course being poisonous is also a good way to prevent being eaten by bigger animals.

The insects using this creature as a hive are of course immune to the paralysing venome (as clownfish are immune to sea annemones), which allows them to hide and nest within the plant.

This tendency to nest in the plant over time evolved into a full blown symbiotic relationship:

  • the insects gather food (like bees) and store it in their hive, if the plant doesn't get other food it can also live of these reserves

  • The insects can drag dead animals (like mice or small birds) or other large food itens they find to the hive. This secures the food from any other competitors that like to feed on them (once in/on the hive only the insects and the hive can feed on it).

  • Additionally and predators chasing the insects can be lured to hive and thereby become food themselves (since the hive will paralyze and slowly kill them, also the insects can now grab a bite from the former predator).
    This might even evolve so far that the hive recognises not the insects but specifically the (female/worker) descendants of a particular insect queen (by DNA/pheromones) and doesn't even allow any other swarms of the same species in.

  • In case of short last bad weather or other conditions the insects can live of the reserves the accumulated, or also on not fully digested prey of the hive.

  • The hive gives the insects almost impenetrable protection: smaller animals, other insects and so on are food for the hive and most bigger animals ignore the hive and anything in it since its poisonous. This allows the insects to also leaves food storages and eggs or not fully developed newborns without in the hive without having to worry about predators.

  • The size of the hive creature can range from very small to huge - mostly depending on how much (extra) food the insects can gather. If they are able to gather extra food the hive will thrive and in turn the swarm can grow. If may insects die or the hive gets damaged than the other partner starts dying of until they both match capacity again and can regrow together.

  • In case of long (several months) winters both the insects and the hive probably won't see a lot of food for a long time. In this case the queen and small part of the insects can retreat into the core of the hive and life of reserves. Any other insects that can't get enough food, can serve as nutrients for the hive (the hive only consumes dead animals, the insects are the only ones normally surviving contact); but the hive will likely also loose biomass and wither until only the core with the incest queen & associates remains.

  • Without insects the hive can only grow passively and very slowly. However every time a new queen is born (or an insect swarm needs to relocated) the queen takes a part of the plant with it to grow a new hive from the seedling.

  • Further symbiotic evolution might lead to a heat regulated central chamber / core for the hive queen (or eggs)

While you said you'll ignore evolution of the hive / symbiosis for now, I think it's pretty clear how it might have worked here:

  • the insects somehow developed immunity to the hive paralysis venom and started nesting there
  • the insects figure out that any food stored / dragged to the hive is protected from all other creatures that would compete over it
  • from this point onwards the hive gains a huge benefit from the insects nesting in it, leading to symbiotic evolution
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  • $\begingroup$ A very interesting idea, but are there land-based plants that offer so much security in paralising poisons? I only know of some plants that lure and weaken insects so they get trapped in a chamber where they are consumed. Not anything as large and dangerous as you describe. Since its fantasy I'm using these for its not a terrible problem, but I prefer a sciency believable background for my inhabitants, even if they might be able to hurl a fireball. $\endgroup$ – Demigan Apr 12 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Demigan I'm not an expert on that topic, but some googling let me discover that there are several plants able to produce curare toxins, which is a pretty strong paralysis poison. Granted, they are not flesh-eating and probably use it a bit differently but it's definitely possible that plant would have a poison like this. $\endgroup$ – Nicolai Apr 15 at 16:38
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Some kind of sponge-like creature

enter image description here

This is Synalpheus regalis, the world's only eusocial crustacean. Colonies of this snapping shrimp spends their entire lives living and feeding inside their host nests: sponges.

Sponges present a naturally convoluted and tunnel-filled structure which serves as a ready made equivalent to an ant or termite nest. Suppose your world has a creature much like a sponge, perhaps even more appropriate for a network of passageways, only it breathes air and is fully terrestrial. Your insects could use these as living nests.

For the other end of the symbiosis, consider that the insects will defecate and die inside the sponge frequently. This organic matter would be absorbed by the host nest and provide welcome nutrition.

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Denigan

I believe Renan has the right example for you. Sloths are basically a mini-ecosystem. The flies that inhabit the sloths live off of the algae that live in the hair of the sloths. The flies help to fertilize the algae with their feces as I recall. There is a positive feedback loop of sorts. You'll need an organism that provides an ecosystem that sustains multiple species that support each other with the host being the keystone species.

You have an organism with micro-environments temperature differentials lots of nooks and crannies (spaces to hide) hence lots of diverse habitats.

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