Worker ants are important members of the colony which serve the queen and perform tasks essential to the colony’s survival. In most ant species, they’re responsible for pretty much everything apart from reproduction. They manage their nests, and also make sure that the queen is fully taken care of so she can fulfill her reproductive duties.
In this article we’ll discuss the different worker ant tasks. We’ll also look into how these tasks are allocated and discover an exception to the rule regarding these generally sterile ants.
Worker Ant Tasks
Nest Construction. Ant nests are initially built by queens as they seal themselves off to safety after mating. In these new nests they then lay eggs to produce the first generation of workers. Once these eggs hatch, these workers work on expanding the nest, among other tasks, to accommodate more eggs and a growing population of workers. Working together, they use their mandibles to dig and build intricate tunnels and chambers which will serve as their shelter for many years to come.
Nest Maintenance. After building, worker ants are then tasked with maintaining their nests. This includes keeping it clean and making sure that it provides ideal living conditions. As such, they make sure to remove dirt and other contaminants such as the corpses of their nest mates to prevent the outbreak of disease. They also adjust brood locations and use insulating nest material to alternate nest ventilation for thermoregulation.
Nest Defense. Worker ants are prepared to fight and even die for their colony. They use a variety of weapons including physical and chemical tools to defend against intruders such as invasive ants and other insects. Some ants even sacrifice themselves to pre-emptively defend their nests. For example, in the Brazilian ant Forelius pusillus, workers give up their lives to close the nest entrance from the outside at sunset.
Foraging. Worker ants are also tasked to find food for the colony. Every ant species have distinct foraging schedules wherein worker ants emerge from their nests and travel a great distance to search for food. Once they find a food source, they then head back to their nests to inform their fellow workers, and from there they head to the food source as a group and work together to bring the food back home.
Taking Care Of The Queen And Brood. The prior tasks all lead to one purpose, to provide and care for the queen and her brood. Worker ants keep the queen and brood healthy by feeding them and keeping them clean. They also strive to protect them, particularly the brood by moving them to hatching chambers where they’re protected until they hatch and morph into the next generation of workers.
Task Allocation In Worker Ants
There’s division of labor within worker ants. With the number of tasks required by the colony, each worker ant is assigned with their own specific tasks so as to ensure that all colony needs are met. This means that at any given point some worker ants are assigned to tend for the queen and her brood while others are assigned to forage for food or nest maintenance.
Some studies suggest that task allocation has to do with age, with younger workers typically remaining within the colony nest while older workers are assigned to riskier tasks like foraging.
However, such age-based allocation isn’t always being followed, and some ants are instead assigned tasks based on the immediate needs of the colony or varying environmental conditions.
This then suggests that worker ants are flexible and capable of fulfilling different roles as needed. For example, when plenty of food sources are available, more workers are called to forage or if the nest is damaged, workers would then focus on repairs.
In some ant species, worker ants are dimorphic and separated into two distinct size classes called minor and major. In these species minor workers are assigned to general tasks such as foraging, nest maintenance, and tending for the brood. Major worker ants on the other hand are specialized for certain tasks such as defense.
Can Worker Ants Reproduce?
Ants are eusocial animals and with this, queens are typically the only ones capable of reproduction. While worker ants are also female, in most ant species they’re sterile and defer to the queen for the colony’s reproductive needs.
There are some ant species like the Harpegnathos saltator however, that have queenless colonies. In these colonies reproductive worker ants called gamergates assume reproductive responsibility. Like queens, they mate with males to produce more worker ants, albeit in a lesser capacity compared to queens.
Are Worker Ants Male Or Female?
The worker caste consists of only female ants. These females are generally sterile and as mentioned, usually defer to the queen for the colony’s reproductive needs. They’re very much different from male ants which are only produced to mate with virgin queens and don’t necessarily help around the colony at all.
How Are Worker Ants Produced?
Worker ants are produced through fertilized eggs. This is by virtue of haploidiploid sex determination, a characteristic in hymenopterans by ants wherein females are produced through fertilized eggs and have 2 sets of chromosomes while males are produced through unfertilized eggs and are haploid or only have one set of chromosomes.
Summary: What Do Worker Ants Do?
Worker ants are important members of the ant colony which work on a variety of tasks to fulfill the colony’s needs, they basically do everything necessary to keep the colony alive. They create and maintain nests which provide shelter, and they also forage for food which they feed to the queen and her brood. All in all, worker ants are what keeps the colony functioning as intended. In many ways, they are just as important as the queen in terms of helping the colony grow and survive.