Ants have found “nannies”, or why their queens stop watching over their children

Social Environment Shapes the Behavior of Queen AntsFor decades, the image of the queen ant has been one of unyielding specialization: a tireless egg-laying machine in the very heart of the colony. However, new research conducted at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) makes interesting adjustments to this long-standing view. DiscussAnts found © Ferra

Research published in the journal Functional Ecology shows that in some ant species, the social environment plays an important role in shaping queen behavior. Romain Libbrecht, lead author and evolutionary biologist, explains: “Our results challenge the traditional idea of ant queens. Social factors, rather than innate traits, determine how specialized these queens become.”

The study focused on species of ants in which the queens establish new colonies alone, initially performing all tasks, including caring for the brood (caring for eggs and larvae). Interestingly, Libbrecht's team noticed that these founding queens were not yet specialized. The turning point comes with the appearance of worker ants. The researchers noticed that the presence of worker ants in nests suppressed the natural behavior of queens to care for their brood, leading to their specialization in laying eggs. Conversely, the isolation of specialized queens from worker ants led them to return to brood care, even after years of dominating egg laying.

These findings have significant implications for our understanding of the division of labor in insect communities.