Science: Shattered dreams

Imagine you are a newly born virgin ant queen. You have dreams of one day flying off, mating with a nice male (or even several!), getting settled somewhere, and start building your very own colony.

But then…your dreams get shattered as you accidentally damage your wings before you have a chance to fly out…forever ruining your chances of fulfilling your dreams.

What would you do?

In leaf-cutting ants, the answer seems clear: you stop sulking and start working!
Volker Nehring and colleagues found this out by taking winged virgin queens, clipping off their wings, and putting them back in their colony.

An Acromyrmex versicolor queen with her wings lying beside her

An Acromyrmex versicolor queen with her wings lying beside her. Picture by Alex Wild (

While normal winged queens generally just hang out in the colony until it is time to fly off, these clipped queens promptly starting doing worker tasks, such as taking care of the larvae and defending the colony.

By doing this, they ensure that the energy the colony has invested in the queen is not completely lost, and thus increasing the efficiency of the colony.

Nehring, V., Boomsma, J.J., d’Ettorre, P. (2012) Wingless virgin queens assume helper roles in Acromyrmex leaf-cutting ants. Current Biology 22(17), R671-R673)

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2 Responses to Science: Shattered dreams

  1. sedeer says:

    Interesting. Did they also try damaging the wings instead of clipping them off? It would be neat to know if the queens can evaluate whether their wings are too badly damaged to fly — maybe there’s some kind of threshold after which they stay in the nest.

  2. antyscience says:

    I was thinking exactly the same! This hasn’t been tested though (yet). I could imagine it having to do something with the costa/subcosta being damaged (, but this is really just a guess. I think they might not be able to detect the ‘skin’ of the wing being damaged, but only the veins.
    Aaaah science…always bringing more questions than answers :)

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