How do ants choose the next queen? (Nora)

Hello Experts,

I am wondering how the ants decide who will be the new queen when the old one needs to be replaced. I understand that the workers can feed some larvae a special diet so they will develop into queens, but how do they know which ones to do this with? Is it arbitrary?


Hi Nora,

Thanks so much for this great question! Usually, ant colonies have one queen that has mated with one male. The queen founds the colony and uses the sperm from that one male throughout her entire life. The queen produces fertilized eggs, which develop into females and unfertilized eggs that develop into males (this is called haplo-diploid sex determination). The workers of the colony feed the up-growing larvae and based on the diet, the female eggs either develop into workers or queens. The queens (and males) than usually fly off to mate and find new colonies. They do not stay in their maternal colony. That's the norm in most ant species. However, among the 14,500 described ant species, there are many exceptions to this "standard ant".

With that said, queen replacement is not the norm for ants. However, in honeybees, this it happens (which also have haplo-diploid sex determination). The norm in monogynous ants (ants with one queen in the colony), is for the queen to die, and then the colony then dies, not too long thereafter. Some colonies have multiple queens and likely, the once all queens die, the colony dies (after each individual worker has died).

However, there are also some cases, in which the queen gets replaced. This is the case in ants that can turn workers into queens after they have hatched from the pupation state. This is usually regulated by pheromones. Basically, one ant will produce pheromones that tell the others not to develop into queens. Ants also show behavior called "policing", which means that they eat the eggs produced by workers, but not the eggs produced by the queen.

Here is a link to a related post on the topic.

And here is the link to a great paper that goes more into detail on the subject, "The demise of the standard ant" by J├╝rgen Heinze.

Research has just started to explore the subject of how, in a "standard" monogyounous colony, workers decide which ants will develop into queens (to fly off and found a new colony) and which will develop into workers. It has to do with many factors, such as season (some ants only produces queens and males in certain seasons), food (the more food, the more reproductives), age of colony (usually only mature colonies produce sexuals).

Hope this helps,
Steffi Kautz, James Trager and the AntAsk Team

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