TL;DR: I want a society which behaves as a hive. Is it plausible and how to achieve this?

The setup: Different planet in our universe. In other words: Normal, physical rules apply, there is no magic involved. I would like to have plausible explanation for everything.

Bonus: Because This is around creaturebuilding and not worldbuilding, I am leaving out the world setup. But, obviously, I would like my creature to meet with humans, so I would like to end up with a planet, which can also support trained humans to survive (= human who went through nowadays NASA astronaut training).

And as I am typing this question, one becomes obvious: The planet has to have at least one moon.

The creature: As stated in the bold text above, I would like to end up with a creature which:

  • Shoots for the moon (and at least has the technological level to go there)
  • Has hive state of mind (possibly evolved from ants or bees)
  • Is large enough to be recognized by human as someone "who runs the show" (ant of size 0,5 meters to start with?)
  • Looks like the insects here on Earth. Does not need to look exactly like an insect, but on the first look at it you would "categorize" it into insects.

The question(s) (again):

  • Is such a creature actually plausible? Could evolution process end up in "intelligent insect"?
  • What traits does such a planet need to have in order to maximize plausibility of such evolution?

And ultimately:

  • Would that planet be able to support astronaut's life if (s)he takes off their helmet?
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You should read up on the creature Morning Light Mountain from Pandora's Star. It's a convincing sci-fi hive mind. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ I am affraid that eusocial insectoids would not develop towards intelligence as an issue solving tool as we see in Earth's vertrebates because eusocial creatures tend to be extremely effective and thus would not experience stress to evolve much. Maybe if a genus of eusocial insectoids would become so efficient that they would compete mostly among each other may pave the way for intelligence to evolve? $\endgroup$
    – Nick Dzink
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 22:00
  • $\begingroup$ @TimB Came here to post that. I'd definitely recommend Pandora's Star (and Judas Unchained) for a really well thought out description of pretty much exactly what you're thinking, bar the exoskeleton. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky explores many of these concepts, and is just and excellent book to boot. Its intelligent insects and arachnids are the result of a human uplift experiment, instead of natural causes, but you'll find his ideas on an "intelligent" hive mind interesting. $\endgroup$
    – Harabeck
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ Hives exist exactly because they aren't intelligent. They act from instinct, almost completely. Individual organisms in a hive are like individual cells or organs in a single organism. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 16:52

7 Answers 7


Starting from simplest to most complicated, lets tackle the size issue first.

Large insects physiology

Insects do not breathe with lungs the way we do. They have many spiracles distributed over their body that open into many tracheae which allow oxygen into their body. They can't use expanding lungs the way we do because their exoskeleton cannot deal with that much flex. Studies have shown that the ability for large insects to evolve is highly limited by their ability to get oxygen to their leg muscles. Increase oxygen, such as in our Paelozoic era, and you increase their ability to get large. You want a Paeleozoic era level of oxyegen in the atmosphere of your planet.

Low gravity would also help large insects be realizable. While it appears large insects can evolve in Earth like gravities, they are bound by the Square-cube law, and it seems more likely that exoskeletons will remain a valid solution as they get larger.

An unfriendly planet will increase the viability of exoskeletons. The big advantage of exoskeletons is that a strong strike from the world around you does no damage as long as it wasn't sufficient to crack your shell. Endoskeletons will be more desirable in situations where it is valid to take a little damage from a strike, and then heal it afterwards. If the environment is hostile, with many potentially killing blows around every corner, shielding will be more useful than repair.

Culture of a Hive Insect Population

The defining characteristic of the hive mind is an unusually strong correlation between the actions of individuals, apparently centered around the mind (historically depicted as the "queen" of the hive). In order to do this, there must be communication -- constant communication. Much of this communication is built at the genetic level (especially given the short lifespan of bees, giving few opportunities for learning). This is where your question gets interesting. Going to the moon is a HUGE communications gap, which limits this communication. This is going to drastically decrease the culture's desire to travel to the moon. It's just not the nature of a hive mind's mentality.

Two directions which could help are RF technology and genetics. Consider a world colonized by one or more of these hives (you did not specify if the entire species was a hive, or if there were multiple competing hives, like ants). They would eventually reach a balance, and live in the best harmony the planet can afford. The discovery of RF communication could dramatically increase the rate of their communication, and allow it to occur through the vacuum of space. This would, in a flash provide a new surface to colonize and trigger a space race.

However, a hive mind would use communication as simple as ours, so it wouldn't be as simple as a phone conversation. Hive minds require coherency, and the easiest way to do this is analog communication such as sounds or dances (digital brings up all sorts of timing woes that, in my opinion, prevent a hive from functioning adequately). Just because they had a new technology like RF wouldn't cause them to immediately shoot for the moon. They would need to adapt the technology to their communications.

Thinking about how such a race would become so powerful, their individuals would have to be well programmed. Such a race would probably need a way to genetically wire their workers to listen to the right commands and act accordingly. They would probably conquer genetics and biology long before RF. Accordingly, they could design workers that would be custom engineered to respond to RF communication just like their primitive songs and dances.

I would also expect them to split the difference between biology and technology: I would expect the technology to be physically adapted to be more similar to their primitive songs and dances. How much of this balance is genetic, and how much its technological is pretty much up to you.


I would consider looking at more complicated hive mind structures than the simple queen+workers pattern, because there's a lot of room for creativity there. If there is a multi-level hierarchy, the queen might install a lieutenant on the moon, equipped with powerful RF communications. Alternatively, a simple queen+workers hierarchy might simply be looking for a backup plan in case something went wrong on their planet. Being able to evacuate the queen to a moon already colonized by workers could be a strong strategic move.

  • $\begingroup$ whoa, really great answer. Thank you. I wish I could upvote this more than once. Will wait a little bit while and send more internet points for this ;) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 9:20
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The oxygen part is true for known insects, but wouldn't hold for sentient "insects". Brains need lots oxygen, even paleozoic level would likely fall short. Fortunately, there is absolutely nothing stopping insects from evolving forced air flow, the exoskeleton just forces the mechanism to be something different from what we use. Good answer, though. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ As an addition to low gravity working against the square cube law, having metamaterials embedded helps extend where the law becomes a problem. Scimitars got its strength and capabilities from carbon Nanotubes embedded into the metal, if the insect can embed its own CNT's into his armor it can increase its maximum size. As for lungs, if the insects use a different evolution and use air-sacs like birds they can become bigger. I also think that digital comms isnt that much of a hurdle, we routinely use phones while a huge amount of our communication happens non-verbally and we have no problem. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer, but I think you're conflating insect with insectoid a bit at the beginning. "Looks like an insect" is good enough for almost all stories, so fixation on exoskeletons and respiratory systems is not really useful. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ @fredsbend I had to limit things carefully. If I opened them towards more of an "insectoid" as you say, the only possible answer to the question is "sure, why not?" as pretty much any limitation can be immediately overcome by just not being an insect that way. The only limitation that could possibly come into play is if another space faring species got pleasure in squishing things that "look like an insect." In that case, they may never make it off the ground. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 19:08

An alien that looks like an insect - i.e. has an exoskeleton - is quite plausible. We do not get such creatures of the size you desire here on earth simply because insects have an open circulatory system and a largely diffusion-based respiratory system, however, an exoskeletal alien of larger size would need - and there is no reason why it could not have - a closed circulatory system and a more efficient respiratory system.

The Square-Cube law limits the size of any creature, but aside from relatively thick-seeming limbs, an insectoid alien of approximately human size is still quite plausible. It would be plausible even up to elephant sized in a 1g environment. If their home world's gravity is lower, they could be even larger or more spindly.

If you look at this answer I gave about creatures with a hive mind, you'll see that biological microwave communication would be the most efficient means of communication for such a species. The thing with microwave communication is that they may be able to communicate at interplanetary ranges if they made use of signal boosters, and they may even be able to communicate at lunar ranges without such artificial enhancements.

In order for a species with a hive mind such as the one I proposed in the answer I mentioned above to evolve, high levels of free metals in the environment would be desirable. This may lead to an environment somewhat toxic to humans due to the presence of heavy metals. In addition, another extant or extinct sentient species could provide the evolutionary stimulus required for a hive mind to evolve, as could a highly unpredictable environment full of predatory species. Of course, this would likely leave our hive very suspicious of other species, especially if they are sentient.

A species with a hive mind, in my opinion, is highly likely to attempt exploration of space. Population control may be alien to such a species except in the form of inter-species or inter-hive warfare, and thus lebensraum may be of some importance, and the species intelligent enough to consider the possibility of finding some off-world.

As to the human-survivability of these beings' home world, I would say that there is no reason why not. An oxygen atmosphere is plausible, though the exact level of oxygen may vary from our own. If species on this world rely on metals, there may be heavy-metal dust that would be toxic in the mid to long term, but a simple dust mask would provide sufficient protection for humans in the short term. Gravity may be higher or lower than on earth, but if the atmosphere is human-breathable and roughly earth temperature, surface gravity is unlikely to be more than around 1.3g as higher gravity would allow accumulation of helium or even hydrogen in the atmosphere.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, I thought exoskeletons got cumbersome once they got up to larger sizes, as they're more mass-y, and reduce the number of muscles available (more muscles available on the outside of a skeleton, vs. inside a skeleton. I don't, however, have a reference for that - nor numbers for exactly where in the size range it becomes problematic $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, it would be something a big bug would have to work around, just as humans work around limits such as inability to breathe water. I don't see it as a deal breaker - although it might make the max size smaller than human, and weaker physically. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 12, 2014 at 19:01

Cooking will make them intellingent.

Any animal on earth can replicate anything a human can do,except cooking, this might be the one thing that enabled us to become intellingent, and we are the only species on the planet to have this skill.

Humans have schools: Wolves too!

Humans have tool use and crafting : So do most social animals, even birds and ants do.

Humans have emotions : just like any social animal

Humans can hunt : And so does any other predator yet they are not so smart..

But only humans can cook.

  • $\begingroup$ Hi Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE. We always recommend taking the tour. Bonobos have been shown to be able to cook, given the tools. But true enough, none have mastered fire in nature so far. So instead of cooking, you could give them fire mastering. But you don't fully answer the question though... $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ By cooking, you obviously mean processing food. There are some species that process and cultivate their food, and some of them are insects. All the rest are symbiotic gut microbes. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 17:02

(first post.) most more intelligent animals have slower reproductive times, (due to complex brains taking longer to develop) and smaller litter sizes. so, in order for insect-like creatures to become intelligent, I would assume that "queens" would breed slower.

having hundreds of dumb cannon fodder is no problem if you make 10000 more in the time it takes for 100 to die. however, if you breed slower, evolution probably would push towards intelligence. now, let's say you have gotten intelligent. I know beehives on earth have hundreds of members all "talking" at once, but communicating with pheromones sharing complex ideas in a room with thousands of other individuals would be a hassle.


Being aliens, these creatures would indeed be more "insect-like" than "actual insects", (presumably with lungs, a cardiovascular system, etc) but that could still leave them with "growing pains" from the exoskeletons.

Thing is, the species here on Earth that use exoskeletons (like crabs/lobsters/etc), tend to have to shed them regularly as they grow, leaving them vulnerable until the new one has been properly grown. Which would be why insects have this stage where they grow their one and only skeleton, which they then keep using until they die. Hence the three stages (egg, larva, pupa) before going into full adulthood.

Our alien friends could be expected to have a somewhat different road to adulthood. Like the queen giving birth to live larvae to bypass the egg stage. Being large enough to be intelligent (even sentient), they may also have a way to school their young in the new ways of a world that changes too fast for (natural) evolution to keep pace. That way the new adults would have more than just instincts telling them what to do (and how to do it).

However, one question that people seem to miss, is what causes such a species to develop tools in the first place? (Even if we don't necessarily witness this particular stage, it'll still be useful to consider when building the species)

I'm obviously thinking artificial tools, like knives, hammers, etc. It's one thing to have natural appendages, but picking up a tool for the very first time ever, takes some imagination. Especially when you then also start to make them yourself.

And of course, having appendages (like hands) capable of actually handling the tools, would not go amiss.

  • $\begingroup$ Some birds use sticks, and crows actually fashion them from larger sticks. Orcas use hunt tactics that employ waves and ice, which can be considered tools in context. Apes famously use needles to pick ants from hills. The individual intelligence of these species is usually regarded as "high". I don't know any insects that use tools or are regarded as high individual intelligence, but spiders are considered intelligent. $\endgroup$
    – user458
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 17:07

1- Technologically capable of getting to the moon is pretty easy if they start developing technology in the first place - figure out how they began using mechanics and chemistry, and you figure out how they developed up from primitive to higher levels. Looking at ants, chemistry would seem an easy field for intelligent species to investigate due to their use of pheromones and therefore highly sensitive chemical receptors.

How would tool use begin in the first place? They have to be capable of manipulating primitive tools (found sticks and rocks) in a way which is superior to their built-in appendages. I could see them developing pottery and then glass for storage and mixing, add in metals and you get batteries and electrical investigations, but this is still presuming they would have a curiosity and investigative drive I'm not sure would exist in a 'hive mind'.

2- a hive mind is tricky to describe. it is not really a single intelligence but a mass of individuals working in a cooperative way. We may look at an ant colony or beehive and think they all are working with a single mind, but that is far from true.

One means of producing what may seem like a 'hive mind' would be to have very low levels of individuality or variations in personality with high levels of communication. This is very easy to explain by having little adolescent development of mind. If each generation in a nest is be genetically identical, and they don't have much of a childhood development (brain is pretty well grown into adulthood as-is), they could be so similar they may not even have a well developed sense of individual self (just each generation of each nest as an 'individual').

3- recognizable as dominant, technologically advanced species. this has nothing to do with size, but would entirely rely upon displaying technological development - probably by demonstrating tool use (could use a radio to call back home to alert people of a human showing up). Maybe wearing a toolbelt or something.

4- If this is to be immediately reminiscent of an insect, the size issue is going to be a problem. The oxygen levels would need to be extremely high and/or some non-insect breathing is done. This isn't too hard, as they can be internally very different than an Earth insect despite outside appearance - a circulatory system with blood pumped through wings could provide all the circulation and heat regulation they need (faster flapping gives better gas exchange and shedding of excess heat).

The shape will fall victim to the square-cube issue of requiring enormous legs to support an incredibly heavy exoskeleton (endoskeletons have the biggest advantage here). This could be slightly ameliorated by them being at least partially aquatic - they could have evolved from small flying insects, becoming terrestrial as they got bigger, and then amphibious as they got too big to be comfortable on land (think insect hippos - land-dwelling but happier in water).

Perhaps as they evolved into larger sizes, their exoskeleton got thinner to save on weight. A good impetus for technological development might be tight leather clothing/harnesses to help hold their bodies together out of the water (less strain on their shell), maybe metal plate armor to protect their thin fragile abdomen/thorax chitin against attack. Their legs would still be very burly relative to Earth insect proportions. More legs than just 6 would help distribute the weight a bit (dodecapede?), but still nowhere near as spindly as would be visually similar to terrestrial insects.


For this question we first need to understand three topics. - biology (insects, invertebrates and hive mind animals) - hive minds - the technology tiers

Biologically speaking it is possible for a insect like species to develop but it would need to develop in a certain way. Evolution made us bipeds and two armed and two eyed for a reason, it’s the best way for a conscious species to develop. Hands for the usage of tools, two legs because it’s the least amount of limbs you need for walking and two arms because it’s the least amount of them you need, as well as eyes. It could also be possible for said beings to have more than two eyes but they would have to follow the structure of wasps or other certain insects (three simple eyes, like ours, and two complex eyes, like those in flies) but they would certainly need two simple eyes, like those in humans, because of the ability to sense light, colour and Depth. But it could also have many pupils in one eye, such as the mantis shrimp, which has two eyes but three pupils in each, as well as the ability to sense more colours than that of visible light (ultraviolet light and polarised light). It could also have two arms but their evolution will require a totally invertebrate being. A vertebrate being can only have two arms because of the structural complexity. It would also need a complex closed circulatory system and a complex breathing system to develop a human like size and also a greater capacity for evolution towards intelligence. The thing that would make it insect like would be the exoskeleton. Many frown down upon this idea but that’s because they don’t realise the ways you could circumvent it’s problems. An insect with fingers (to manipulate and create tools) could pretty easily take its exoskeleton off when molting. It could also when molting, secrete an enzyme that begins breaking down the old exoskeleton while creating a new one under it. Processes like these are found somewhat in the formation and shaping of bones. So now we have our finished alien. An anthropomorphic being with (most probably) two arms, bipedal, two eyes and a very complex exoskeleton (whose plaques should remind of the muscle system on vertebrates). It could have horns, a funny color, be aquatic, have regeneration, or even be able of secreting webs or acid. Also it probably would not be able of flight, so they would probably remind you of a crazy hybrid between a human, an ant and a crustacean.

That’s the end of the biological topic.

For hive minds you have to understand that these insects don’t share brain waves, they just communicate constantly through the use of hormones. Your aliens could have that but they probably couldn’t go to the moon because of the complexity of the actions needed for that without hormonal instructions. And because they are sentient they must also be able to communicate through various means (just like how humans can communicate through facial expressions and also speech). On the other side, hive minds require the minds of the workers to be “empty”, awaiting the next command, while the queen would send out all orders. If you want you species to be entirely sentient then there would be no queens of the hive mind in a sense. The species would all have intelligence and “freedom of thought” but the rulers would still be queens since they are the ones that can create more brood. They would still be separated into classes and functions such as termites : - infants (nymphs) - workers (builders, scavengers, groomers and caretakers) - soldiers - reproductive substitutes - king and queen You could make it that the nobility is the reproductives and they are constantly creating more brood, while the soldiers are always protecting and destroying threats, while workers continue with their functions, also being allowed to choose their function by controlling what morph they shall take (basically choosing what work they will perform, by psychosomatic reactions). An idea would be that they develop many technologies before venturing to space until they develop neural chips that they implant on their brains to connect each other on a constant communication array (which would also include many awesome technologies). And that’s when they venture into other worlds (also developing the suits and technology to do so). They would probably not develop AI since they reproduce constantly and they have a vast array of loyal servants but they could do it for communication purposes I suppose.

That’s the hive mind point taken care off.

For the technological tiers you’d have to understand the functions to follow in every society : - digging - building - farming - ranching - cooking - decorating - researching - suit wearing - supplying - operating - doctoring - tidying

These functions must be carried out, and every species must develop in the seven tiers of technological progress : - pre-industrial age : before the engine - Industrial Age : the age of the engine - atomic age : knowledge of the universe and the creation of fission and fusion. - space age : satellites into space and space exploration through probes. - space faring age : the development of the warp drive. - interstellar age : the creation of a galactic civilisation. - world builder age : the total understanding of the universe workings, and the end of progress.

You can see that the colonisation of their moon would be a type four civilisation trait. They would need to have conquered their world totally and then try to terraform their moon by colonising it and then transporting materials to it to make it like their planet (they should need space suits accommodated to their needs, the neural chips, complex space ships that would find, collect and manipulate materials).

I hope this was of help.


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