The conflict offers a glimpse into a complex insect society that is neither an absolute monarchy under the control of the queen, nor a workers' paradise where the queen is a slave to the will of her offspring. Rather, workers and queens have arrived at a kind of negotiated middle ground, according to research conducted at North Carolina State University and published Friday, Aug. 17, in the journal Science.
The findings have implications for how scientists understand the complicated structure of social insect societies, including those of ants, wasps, bees and termites, explains Dr. Ed Vargo, NC State assistant professor of entomology and co-author of the Science paper.
"This will cause people to think a little more about the role that queens have in societies like this, and to focus a little more on the mechanisms the queens use to exert control," Vargo said.
For decades, entomologists have thought that the workers in ant colonies all female and all daughters of the queen control how many males are allowed to live in the colony by killing many of their brothers while still larvae. Scientists assumed the queen was simply an egg-laying machine. They were puzzled, though, that the ratio of females to males in some ant colonies was not quite as high as they would expect in a worker-dominated society.
The research by Vargo and his three European colleagues has found an explanation: The queen can, in fact, alter the sex ratio of her colony by limiting the number of female eggs she lays. "The queen and the workers are having a conflict, and in some circumstances the queens can exert more control, and in some circumstances the workers can exert more control," Vargo said.