It is generally assumed that the death of the queen, particularly in monogynous colonies, also marks the death of the colony itself. While this has been proven experimentally, more and more studies reveal that dead queen ants can end up being replaced by younger queens.
In this article we’ll look deeper into what happens when the queen ant dies as we discuss several studies that demonstrate different situations and outcomes.
Most ant colonies are monogynous, meaning they only have one queen. In these colonies, these individual queens are the only ones capable of reproduction. They produce thousands upon thousands of eggs to grow the colony and allow it to mature.
So it’s quite clear how the death of these queens may severely affect the health of the colony. Without them, no new workers are produced, growth ceases, and the colony eventually dies off as its members go past their lifespans.
In some colonies, this is exactly what happens. For example, a study on the monogynous colonies of the red wood ant Oecophylla sp. showed that queens were never replaced upon removal. This resulted in the worker number gradually dwindling down until the colony died out entirely.
Queen Replacement In Polygynous Ants
Queen replacement is by no means a rarity especially in polygynous (multiple-queen) ant colonies. Genetic studies in these ant colonies occasionally reveal genotypes of workers, new queens, and males, being incompatible with those of the reproductive queens present in the colony at any given time. This suggests that these polygynous colonies often experience queen turnover and replacement.
Most of the time, these replacement queens are recruited within the colony and are therefore close relatives of the nest. However, there have been cases in some species wherein unrelated queens are adopted into the colony, as evidenced by the several different lineages of maternally inherited DNA. That said, little is known about how the latter is regulated and how often these unrelated queens succeed in being accepted to a colony.
Queen Replacement In Monogynous Ants
It’s rather surprising that queen replacement occurs in monogynous ant colonies. Again, since these colonies only have one reproductive queen, it’s logical to assume that the loss of the queen would eventually cause colony death. However, that’s not always the case and as it turns out, queen replacement occurs quite frequently even in these single-queen colonies.
For example, the monogynous Australian ants Nothomyrmecia macrops have shown to adapt an alternative type of colony founding wherein queens are replaced by one of the colony’s daughters. This potentially allows the colony to become immortal as they may constantly replace queens as needed.
The same behavior can be found in the monogynous ants Aphaenogaster senilis. These ants produce supernumerary queens which serve as insurance for the untimely death of the current queen. This allows them, in the same way as the Australian ants, to extend their colony lifespan.
What’s more interesting though is the manner that they produce extra queens. Instead of producing a high number simultaneously, they only produce two with an interval of several days or even weeks between each one.
This makes it so that the first newborn queen almost always becomes the eventual replacement while the rest are only kept as backup. The limited production and delay also minimizes the risk of aggressive interaction between the new queens which may very well lead to all of them being killed.
How Long Do Queen Ants Live?
The lifespan of the queen ant varies from species to species. In general, queen ants live for years. Fire ant queens for example, live an average of 7 years while Lasius niger queens have been documented to live for 28 years in captivity. In some polygynous species, queen ants have a short maximum lifespan of less than a year.
How Long Do Ants Live Without A Queen?
Ants may live for several weeks and perhaps months without a queen. It depends on the species and the average worker lifespan.
How Are Queen Ants Born?
Queen ants are born through the same fertilized eggs that hatch worker ants. The difference is that queen ants are fed and nourished more in the early years of their life cycle, allowing them to grow big and morph into reproductives.
Summary: What Happens When The Queen Ant Dies?
The death of the queen may potentially mean the death of the colony itself. Without the queen, the production of new workers cease and the colony eventually dies off as the older workers reach the end of their lifespans.
Fortunately, queen replacement occurs in polygynous and monogynous colonies alike. These new queens, be they adopted from within or be totally unrelated to the colony, take reproductive responsibility and allow the colony to survive a nd continue growing.