Social environment shapes ant queen behavior

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Queens of colonies of social insects such as ants, bees, and wasps are thought to be the very embodiment of specialization in the animal kingdom. The common perception is that the queen’s only job is to lay eggs, and that this trait is innate and not influenced by external factors. In contrast, recent research conducted at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) shows that in a given ant colony, the social environment may play an important role in shaping the queen’s behavioral specialization. It was demonstrated that there is. “For the ant species we studied, it is social factors that control whether queens become specialized. Our findings suggest that queens of social insects are essentially specialized egg-laying machines. “It challenges the widely accepted notion that

The research was conducted by JGU’s Reproduction, Nutrition and Behavior in Insect Societies Group under the supervision of evolutionary biologist Dr. Roman Libbrecht. A corresponding paper was recently published in the journal Functional Ecology. Dr. Roman Libbrecht currently works at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) at the Institute of Insect Biology at the University of Tours.

Concept of insect society as a superorganism consisting of special individuals

Colonies of social insects are generally thought to consist of a queen bee, who monopolizes reproduction, and sterile worker bees, who take care of all non-reproductive tasks, such as caring for eggs and larvae. Libbrecht’s team is now questioning this basic premise. They focused on an ant species in which the queen found new colonies alone, without the help of workers. “Interestingly, these founding queens were not yet specialized in their behavior at this stage of life,” Libbrecht noted. “They themselves take on all the tasks within the nest, such as caring for the brood, to ensure the successful production of the first generation of workers.”

In experiments, Libbrecht’s group studied the black garden ant, Lasius niger, which is native to Germany. They found that the social environment was a central factor determining the behavioral specialization of first queens. “Introducing workers to the founder queen’s nest inhibited the queen’s natural tendency to care for her own brood. Conversely, when the queen, who specialized in egg-laying, was isolated from the workers, the queen rapidly observed in the case of founding queens who returned to brood-care behavior even after many years of specialization. ”

Revision of the conventional wisdom regarding the division of labor in insect societies

Professor Libbrecht emphasized that the behaviors observed during the study cast doubt on the traditional view that queens of social insects are essentially specialized in egg-laying. Rather, our results show that the presence of workers not only induces queen egg-laying specialization but also actively maintains it within established colonies. The discovery of such social control of queen specialization has the potential to reshape our understanding of the functioning of insect societies and their role division.

From 2016 to 2022, Roman Libbrecht was head of the Reproduction, Nutrition and Behavior Group in Insect Societies at the Institute for Biological and Molecular Evolution (IOME) at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Since 2023, he has been a researcher at the Institute of Insect Biology. Institute of the CNRS of the University of Tours. He is particularly interested in examining how organisms adjust their reproduction, physiology, and behavior in response to environmental conditions.

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