A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What happens to an ant separated from the colony?

December 16, 2003

Dear Straight Dope:

What happens to an ant that gets separated from its colony? Does it find a new home? Can it live on the streets like homeless people do? I am interested because I have an ant farm and would like to create an ant version of "Survivor."

If a worker ant gets separated from its colony, it's doomed. No other colony will take it in, and it can't start its own colony--only queens can do that. It might be able to live for a while, but generally not that long--a lost worker is generally more concerned with hunting for its colony than with feeding itself, and its energy reserves are fairly small (depending on the ant species--some have workers that are adapted to taking long foraging trips). A few ant species, however, have "supercolonies," where neighboring colonies are established by queens directly related to one another. When queens are close relatives, their workers tend to have similar chemical profiles, meaning they can move from colony to colony without triggering the usual colony defenses against intruders. (Intruders are recognized by their chemical profile--their odor--and not by appearance, ID card, etc.) In such cases, workers routinely transfer between colonies, so a worker may end up working for its grandmother or, forgive me, its aunt.

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