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Concept: Formicinae


Collective decisions regarding food source exploitation in social insects are influenced by a range of parameters, from source quality to individual preference and social information sharing. Those regarding the elevation of the physical trail towards a food source have been neglected. In this work, we investigated the effect of ascending and descending paths from the nest to a food source on collective choice in two ant species Lasius niger and Myrmica rubra. Our hypothesis that returning loaded with food from the high source is more energy efficient was validated by choice experiments: when the sources are simultaneously introduced the high food source is preferentially exploited by both species. The flexibility of colony response was then tested by introducing the preferred source (high) incidentally, after recruitment towards the down food source began. Despite the well-known lack of flexibility of L. niger, both species showed the ability to reallocate their foraging workforce towards the highest food source. The collective choice and the flexibility are based on the difference between the u-turn rates when foragers are facing the ascending or descending branch. We discuss these results in terms of species-specifics characteristics and ecological context.

Concepts: Evolution, Ecology, Choice, Preference, Ant, Optimal foraging theory, Behavioral ecology, Formicinae


In social groups, infections have the potential to spread rapidly and cause disease outbreaks. Here, we show that in a social insect, the ant Lasius neglectus, the negative consequences of fungal infections (Metarhizium brunneum) can be mitigated by employing an efficient multicomponent behaviour, termed destructive disinfection, which prevents further spread of the disease through the colony. Ants specifically target infected pupae during the pathogen’s non-contagious incubation period, utilising chemical ‘sickness cues’ emitted by pupae. They then remove the pupal cocoon, perforate its cuticle and administer antimicrobial poison, which enters the body and prevents pathogen replication from the inside out. Like the immune system of a metazoan body that specifically targets and eliminates infected cells, ants destroy infected brood to stop the pathogen completing its lifecycle, thus protecting the rest of the colony. Hence, in an analogous fashion, the same principles of disease defence apply at different levels of biological organisation.

Concepts: Immune system, Disease, Bacteria, Evolution, Insect, Infection, Ant, Formicinae


In early spring, red wood ants Formica polyctena are often observed clustering on the nest surface in large numbers basking in the sun. It has been hypothesized that sun-basking behaviour may contribute to nest heating because of both heat carriage into the nest by sun-basking workers, and catabolic heat production from the mobilization of the workers' lipid reserves. We investigated sun-basking behaviour in laboratory colonies of F. polyctena exposed to an artificial heat source. Observations on identified individuals revealed that not all ants bask in the sun. Sun-basking and non-sun-basking workers did not differ in body size nor in respiration rates. The number of sun-basking ants and the number of their visits to the hot spot depended on the temperature of both the air and the hot spot. To investigate whether sun basking leads to a physiological activation linked with increased lipolysis, we measured respiration rates of individual workers as a function of temperature, and compared respiration rates of sun-basking workers before and two days after they were allowed to expose themselves to a heat source over 10 days, at self-determined intervals. As expected for ectothermic animals, respiration rates increased with increasing temperatures in the range 5 to 35°C. However, the respiration rates of sun-basking workers measured two days after a long-term exposure to the heat source were similar to those before sun basking, providing no evidence for a sustained increase of the basal metabolic rates after prolonged sun basking. Based on our measurements, we argue that self-heating of the nest mound in early spring has therefore to rely on alternative heat sources, and speculate that physical transport of heat in the ant bodies may have a significant effect.

Concepts: Metabolism, Energy, Temperature, Heat, Ant, Formica, Formicinae, Formica polyctena


Reproductive division of labor is one of the key features of social insects. Queens are adapted for reproduction while workers are adapted for foraging and colony maintenance. In many species, however, workers retain functional ovaries and can lay unfertilized male eggs or trophic eggs. Here we report for the first time on the occurrence of physogastric workers and apparent worker reproduction in the invasive yellow crazy ant Anoplolepis gracilipes (Fr. Smith). We further examined the reproductive potential and nutritional role of physogastric workers through multidisciplinary approaches including morphological characterization, laboratory manipulation, genetic analysis and behavioral observation.

Concepts: Human, Male, Reproduction, Ant, Formicinae, Yellow crazy ant, Anoplolepis


Highly social ants, bees and wasps employ sophisticated recognition systems to identify colony members and deny foreign individuals access to their nest. For ants, cuticular hydrocarbons serve as the labels used to ascertain nest membership. Social parasites, however, are capable of breaking the recognition code so that they can thrive unopposed within the colonies of their hosts. Here we examine the influence of the socially parasitic slave-making ant, Polyergus breviceps on the nestmate recognition system of its slaves, Formica altipetens. We compared the chemical, genetic, and behavioral characteristics of colonies of enslaved and free-living F. altipetens. We found that enslaved Formica colonies were more genetically and chemically diverse than their free-living counterparts. These differences are likely caused by the hallmark of slave-making ant ecology: seasonal raids in which pupa are stolen from several adjacent host colonies. The different social environments of enslaved and free-living Formica appear to affect their recognition behaviors: enslaved Formica workers were less aggressive towards non-nestmates than were free-living Formica. Our findings indicate that parasitism by P. breviceps dramatically alters both the chemical and genetic context in which their kidnapped hosts develop, leading to changes in how they recognize nestmates.

Concepts: Bacteria, Symbiosis, Parasitism, Ant, Mutualism, Commensalism, Kleptoparasitism, Formicinae


The nests of social insects are not only impressive because of their sheer complexity but also because they are built from individuals whose work is not centrally coordinated. A key question is how groups of insects coordinate their building actions. Here, we use a combination of experimental and modeling approaches to investigate nest construction in the ant Lasius niger. We quantify the construction dynamics and the 3D structures built by ants. Then, we characterize individual behaviors and the interactions of ants with the structures they build. We show that two main interactions are involved in the coordination of building actions: (i) a stigmergic-based interaction that controls the amplification of depositions at some locations and is attributable to a pheromone added by ants to the building material; and (ii) a template-based interaction in which ants use their body size as a cue to control the height at which they start to build a roof from existing pillars. We then develop a 3D stochastic model based on these individual behaviors to analyze the effect of pheromone presence and strength on construction dynamics. We show that the model can quantitatively reproduce key features of construction dynamics, including a large-scale pattern of regularly spaced pillars, the formation and merging of caps over the pillars, and the remodeling of built structures. Finally, our model suggests that the lifetime of the pheromone is a highly influential parameter that controls the growth and form of nest architecture.

Concepts: Insect, Ant, Hymenoptera, Construction, Building, Architecture, Termite, Formicinae


Characterisation of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCR) relies on the availability of a toolbox of ligands that selectively modulate different functional states of the receptors. To uncover such molecules, we explored a unique strategy for ligand discovery that takes advantage of the evolutionary conservation of the 600-million-year-old oxytocin/vasopressin signalling system. We isolated the insect oxytocin/vasopressin orthologue inotocin from the black garden ant (Lasius niger), identified and cloned its cognate receptor and determined its pharmacological properties on the insect and human oxytocin/vasopressin receptors. Subsequently, we identified a functional dichotomy: inotocin activated the insect inotocin and the human vasopressin V1b receptors, but inhibited the human V1aR. Replacement of Arg8 of inotocin by D-Arg8 led to a potent, stable and competitive V1aR-antagonist ([D-Arg8]-inotocin) with a 3,000-fold binding selectivity for the human V1aR over the other three subtypes, OTR, V1bR and V2R. The Arg8/D-Arg8 ligand-pair was further investigated to gain novel insights into the oxytocin/vasopressin peptide-receptor interaction, which led to the identification of key residues of the receptors that are important for ligand functionality and selectivity. These observations could play an important role for development of oxytocin/vasopressin receptor modulators that would enable clear distinction of the physiological and pathological responses of the individual receptor subtypes.

Concepts: Signal transduction, Receptor, Receptor antagonist, G protein-coupled receptor, Metabotropic glutamate receptor, Formicinae, Lasius umbratus, Black garden ant


Social organisms can surmount many ecological challenges by working collectively. An impressive example of such collective behavior occurs when ants physically link together into floating ‘rafts’ to escape from flooded habitat. However, raft formation may represent a social dilemma, with some positions posing greater individual risks than others. Here, we investigate the position and function of different colony members, and the costs and benefits of this functional geometry in rafts of the floodplain-dwelling ant Formica selysi. By causing groups of ants to raft in the laboratory, we observe that workers are distributed throughout the raft, queens are always in the center, and 100% of brood items are placed on the base. Through a series of experiments, we show that workers and brood are extremely resistant to submersion. Both workers and brood exhibit high survival rates after they have rafted, suggesting that occupying the base of the raft is not as costly as expected. The placement of all brood on the base of one cohesive raft confers several benefits: it preserves colony integrity, takes advantage of brood buoyancy, and increases the proportion of workers that immediately recover after rafting.

Concepts: Ecology, Chemistry, Ant, Ants, Raft, Formicinae, Rafting, Whitewater


Ticks and tick-borne pathogens are a global problem for the health of humans and their livestock. Wood ants are important ecosystem engineers in forests worldwide. Although both taxa are well studied, little is known about their interactions under natural conditions. The purpose of the present field study was to test whether European red wood ants (Formica polyctena) influence the abundance of Ixodes tick populations in temperate forests.

Concepts: Ecology, Formica, Formicinae, Formica polyctena


Ecological studies often are subjected to unintentional biases, suggesting that improved research designs for hypothesis testing should be used. Double-blind ecological studies are rare but necessary to minimize sampling biases and omission errors, and improve the reliability of research. We used a double-blind design to evaluate associations between nests of red wood ants (Formica rufa, RWA) and the distribution of tectonic faults. We randomly sampled two regions in western Denmark to map the spatial distribution of RWA nests. We then calculated nest proximity to the nearest active tectonic faults. Red wood ant nests were eight times more likely to be found within 60 m of known tectonic faults than were random points in the same region but without nests. This pattern paralleled the directionality of the fault system, with NNE-SSW faults having the strongest associations with RWA nests. The nest locations were collected without knowledge of the spatial distribution of active faults thus we are confident that the results are neither biased nor artefactual. This example highlights the benefits of double-blind designs in reducing sampling biases, testing controversial hypotheses, and increasing the reliability of the conclusions of research.

Concepts: Scientific method, Knowledge, Ant, Null hypothesis, Formica, Formicinae, Formica rufa group, Formica rufa