For most species of ants, it’s a women’s world – men just live in it. And if we’re being entirely blunt, they don’t live in it for that long, either.
Ants are a highly gendered insect group, where the males and females have entirely different roles from one another. Their titles alone should give you some hint of the natural gender hierarchy within the colonies.
Female ants are Queens, Workers, and Soldiers; by contrast, males are referred to as Drones. That’s never a term you want used to describe you, whatever your species. So why are males so disadvantaged in ant colonies? Well, let’s compare female ants vs male ants to find out.
Lets Start With Female Ants
First, let’s look at some of the female ants, and they won’t be hard to find. Most of those ants you see crawling on your driveway or making a nuisance of themselves during your picnic are all females.
These are the worker ants scrounging for food to bring home, and they are the foundation of any colony regardless of species. These hardy females gather dinner, look after the queen and her children, and in some cases will even double as soldiers to protect the colony from hostile invaders.
In fact, depending on the specific species, these female ants can also be invaders themselves! More aggressive ants such as the Amazon ants are known for invading other ant colonies, even taking prisoners to use as slaves in their own colonies.
In these battles, females make up the majority of all combatants on either side, males often wholly ignored or taken as slaves by the winning team.
Of course, being a worker ant or a solider ant is small peanuts for a female ant. She can aspire to far bigger goals, such as being the Queen of her own entire colony. Any female ant is eligible to become the next Queen – who gets assigned worker and who gets assigned Queen is up to what the ants eat as larvae.
Ants with a higher amount of protein in the diet during their larvae stage will grow to massive sizes and become Queens. Those who have a leaner diets stay itty-bitty, and when they’re fully grown they become workers or soldiers.
The Queen rules supreme
Regardless of the species, the Queen is the head honcho of her ant colony. You can’t miss her – just look for the biggest ant on the block, maybe with large wing nubs on her back from her flying days.
If that fails, check the thorax – Queens will often have much larger ones than her loyal subjects. The Queen of any colony lives her life much like a medieval human Queen would, tended to on hand and foot with her only concern being the royal lineage. Sunlight and food gathering? That’s for peasants.
The Queen is brought food by her loyal worker ants and will rarely if ever leaving the safety of the below-ground tunnels. Worker ants will tend to her every need, including free childcare. While the Queen herself is the often only ant that will breed, her multitudes of children are usually attended to by female workers, not by the Queen herself.
The Queen is also the only female ant who gets a real vacation day, when she flies away to find an appropriate mate. After finding her dream hubby and mating, she sheds her wings and settles down to raise her several hundred children.
Male Ants Fight Back!
Meanwhile, the male ant is left suffering a broken heart for the rest of his life; not that that’s a particularly long time, really. In the majority of species, male ants die not long after mating with their chosen female.
This lone male ant is the closest the colony has to a ‘King,’ and it’s a short-lived position at best.
In the world of ants, it’s not good to be king.
While Romeo’s tragically dying on his lonesome, his lady love returns to her subjects with a pouch full of sperm and begins tossing out eggs. One weird thing about ants is that only some of these eggs will be fertilized, but even the unfertilized ones will ‘hatch.’ Those fertilized will go on to become females, while those unfertilized eggs will become the males, holding fewer chromosomes than their sisters.
This strange process of gender determinations is called ‘haplodiploidy,’ and is common among many ant species. Some colonies even double up on Queens to create what is called Polygyny colony – where two or more Queens will live and breed for the same colony, sort of like co-parents.
When all’s said and done, the Queen definitely has a golden ticket, even among the female ants. She looks forwards to a relaxing life of being fed and waited on by her workers and lives a phenomenally long life for an insect – often 28-30 years.
Queen ants are essentially the Elves of the insect world. Workers aren’t as lucky, living on average 2 -3 years, but that’s still a long time next to males. These poor guys tend to only live for a few weeks before shuffling off that mortal coil. Most grow to sexual adulthood, mate once with a Queen, and quickly die after doing so.
Male contributions to the survival and welfare of the colony is so minor that there are ant species that don’t have males at all. As in, the population is 100% female! These species don’t use sperm or breed sexually with the males, instead using a process called ‘cataglyphis.’ If you’ve never heard of that and are reaching for a dictionary, don’t worry, I promise it’s not as complicated as it sounds.
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This ten-dollar word basically just boils down to asexual reproduction, where the young are genetic clones of their parents. To get a rough idea of what this is like, picture the early StormTroopers from Star Wars in your mind. Now shrink ’em down to ants and, well, you get the idea. Instead of getting busy with Romeo, these independent ladies create an army of female clones, working and thriving without a man in sight.
Some male ants such as the electric ant, can do a similar version of this cloning technique, but it’s always secondary to the female reproduction. They do appear, but females remain more common and far more important.
But it’s not all doom, and gloom for the males! Male ants may live shorter lives, but there are certainly some perks to being a male ant. For example, there are way more winged males than there are females. In females, the only winged ant is usually the Queen or princess, and she sheds her wings right after mating.
But in males, wings are usually quite common and remain intact throughout the ant’s lifetime, with the exception of some ergatoid species where nobody has wings at all. So while they may have fewer job options, the ability to fly is a big plus that females rarely experience.
Once in awhile a male ant might see some combat action, too. While female soldiers do the invading, the male Drones can help protect the colony during outside attacks. With large mandibles or stingers, they piece invaders and mark them with a special pheromone.
Like dropping a flare on a bombing target, this marks the invader for everyone to see, and the female ants will appear like a zombie horde and finish them off. Teamwork!
And males do have one more perk the female ants never get, and that’s the ability to just be lazy. Yes, you read that right! It’s scientifically proven female ants on average work much harder than their male counterparts do.
In 1980 Wilson and Holldobler at Harvard University discovered that male silk-weaving ants made far less silk than their sisters in arms. The pair theorized that the male ants had evolved to be so niche in their design – essentially acting as walking sperm and little else – they actually didn’t evolve the same altruistic, teamwork-based behavior that females did.
To put it another way, male ants are just a one-trick pony. In their defense, if you only lived a few weeks you’d slack off at work too!
Another theory purposed is that the males intentionally hold off on the work to save energy and protein for reproduction with the Queen, which is really the biggest role male ants can play.
Anything else they may do – defender, weaver, etc – is pretty much a side gig. So they get away with slacking off and letting the girls do most of the work – interestingly, some male homosapiens show similar behaviors, particularly when it comes to housecleaning.
(If your interested, the full 5-page article by Wilson and Holldobler is free to read here: https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/77/4/2343.full.pdf)
So, it seems that the male ants lose this round of the gender war. With their shorter lifespans, fewer job opportunities, and tragically fleeting love life, the male ants are consistently overshadowed by their female counterparts.
Researchers today often focus almost solely on female ants, because that’s where the complicated communication and group behavior is found. Male ants only come into play on the topic of reproductive biology – and even then, their roles are rather brief in the whole process.
Sorry boys, this war is going to the girls!
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