Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief
People in the ages have used ants and bees to shame their less motivated workers and children. Certain religion even mentions ants as a role model. Except that an ant can get up to 250 naps a day. Some even sleep on the ceiling like bats. Incidentally queen ants sleep twice as much as her daughters. Ants also practice cannibalism but that part is often left out. This article is about all the behaviours that got left out the worker ants.
In the ant kingdom, being the firstborn sucks. The first batches of ants are underfed as they have to feed from the queen ant’s reserves. At the same time, the queen still needs to produce eggs for the firstborn to babysit. As a result, the firstborns are undersized. These nanitic workers are the literally all-rounders. They feed the young, attend to the queen, clear the waste and looking for food.
Ants have a special role for childcare workers. They need to store the eggs and feed the young. The ants are looking after their younger workers. The fairly immobile larva. All ant larvae have to act as their colony’s digestive system as their adult siblings can only drink nutritious liquid. All solid foods are given to the larva and in turn, the larva feeds the rest of the colony. Weaver ants take this a step further by literally bringing the children to work. The thread used for weaving is from the silk spat out by the larva. The larva is the portable glue gun for the colony.
There are slaver ants (More accurately baby snatchers as older ants do not change allegiances to other species). And there are thieves. These thief ants stay near to other ant nest and raid their pantry. Then there is literally less child friendly version that raid the young of the other ant nest. The next time you see a tiny ant, remember that it could hunting for a bigger prey. The thieves tend to be smaller than their victims.
The relationship between thieves and victim is still up for discussion. There are thieves that do steal food and young. Yet these venomous ants are recognized as strangers but are allowed to roam unharmed in the ant nest. One possible reason is by having more lethal hanger-on, invading ants will have a harder foe. Choosing the lesser evil.
This applies to ants that have polymorphism and have varied number of castes. In short, different jobs for different sizes. This applies for matured colonies since there is no advantage in specialization when the colony is still finding its footing. The short-staffed ants look at the size of the head. Those with big heads get the soldier position. Those smaller build get to be foragers. Foragers have to be small so as to scout further. Each rookie ant is given a few days of training and then they are considered independent. Failure in a role result in a job placement. Did I mention that ants are blind or have poor eyesight?
I need to point out those worker ants come in different sizes like clothing. Some come in two sizes. Too big (when biting) and too small (when needing to locate them for extermination). The bigger worker ants are called macrergates while their smaller counterparts are micrergates. The size difference can be as much as 500 times.
There are soldiers. And then there are literal bodyguards. These are mini ants that ride on their bigger sisters. Their role is to protect the big sister from smaller parasites. To use a more familiar term, these minims act as anti-air defense. There are flies that want to lay eggs on the head of the bigger ant. Recall the point above about bad eyesight? The ant solution is usually to add more ants to the problem.
I know that winged ants are not a caste but I feel that it is important to talk about these alates. They literally fly by night for some species. They are either male or queens ants. So when you are disturbed by swarms of flying critters, keep in mind that there are many more unseen workers.
They are considered temp workers because the males usually die quicky after mating. Sex work is also work. The queen ants literally down her wings to be a stay home mother when she has mated and found her home. Part of the reason for chewing off her wings is that she can then converts the muscles to baby food to feed her daughters. Those stunted firstborn.
At this time, patient readers would comment that there are no king makers. All will be revealed when the explanation of how the ratio of the castes is maintained. In winter, there is no need for foragers but there is still need for nurses as ants cannot hibernate. Instead of keeping a team of unemployed foragers, the ants nip the problem at the bud. The existing foragers will be deployed to other roles while waiting for their deaths.
Food scarcity? Cannibalism. Too many males? Guess what is for dinner. As the queen ant controls the sex ratio, male ants are seldom on the menu. But when the queen ant dies without a replacement, things get interesting in the ant nest. For some ants, they duke it out with their sisters. The winner will then undergo biological changes to be the next queen. Her brains will shrink while her reproductive parts enlarge. It is important to note that the process is reversible.
For the other workers ants that cannot change, there is regicide for the other princess ants save one. Sometimes the old queen is also removed to make room for the next queen. The next time someone mentions about ants and their hardworking habits, remind them that there are also other interesting duties for the worker ant.
For readers more interested in the interesting jobs in the animal world, please check out my article Groundbreaking.