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Queen-less colonies and protein

queenless

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#1 Offline Izzy - Posted May 31 2023 - 6:17 PM

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Hey all,

Not really an urgent question here but just something I've been curious about in my observations, and wanted to see what y'all thought. I'm pretty new to ant keeping but I've done a lot of research in the months leading up to ant season. One thing I came across frequently was this idea that workers only really need a sugar source and that the protein is primarily needed by the queen and larvae since it is a building block of life.

I've been keeping a queen-less Tetramorium colony that I aspirated from my girlfriend's kitchen (she was going to have them wiped out so I figured I'd get as many as I could, keep them as an experiment, and get practice before I catch a Tetramorium queen myself this summer). I was able to aspirate probably 200-300 workers. I've noticed that when I feed them honey, or honey water they immediately cover it up with dirt and don't drink any of it (so I'm assuming). I started feeding them a piece of apple. They will drink this, and this is primarily how I feed them a sugary source. What surprises me the most though is that when I feed them protein they swarm it like crazy, and sometimes when given a meal worm they will even carry it into their tunnels they've dug beneath the flat rock I put on their substrate.

Considering the colony is queen-less, what are they doing with this protein I provide? I'm assuming that despite everyone saying workers don't need protein they actually do need some protein. Are they just gathering it on instinct? If they eat a bunch of protein, and have no need for it, and it's just sitting in their social stomach, what do they end up doing with it? I've just been surprised at how readily and eagerly they go for the protein every single time I provide it when it seems like they don't show that level of enthusiasm for anything else I provide, especially sugary sources.

 

Any thoughts or information? Mostly just curious what use a queen-less colony has for so much protein.



#2 Offline futurebird - Posted May 31 2023 - 6:49 PM

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I think this is a case of people taking a general idea "colonies need more protein when they have larvae" to an extreme "Workers don't need it at all!" I picked up this little factoid too when I started keeping ants and I've noticed the same thing you have: Adult ants enjoy some protein. 

This might be one of those cases where a colony of adults can "get by" without protein-- but, to be at their best they need some. 

Ants have an uncanny sense for their colonies needs and there are many factors in their food cycles that complicate this. For example: a colony of adult workers without larvae may eat old silk pupae casings in tough times. My carpenter ants seem to hoard the things in separate garbage piles from their normal trash, and I've caught them munching on it from time to time. What is that about? Recovering protein? I thought maybe they used it as a building material ... but I'm starting to think it's just an emergency snack. 

Likewise another not so obvious thing is the way that majors act as repletes. Even in species where we think of the majors as biters and fighters... sometimes they are just... very fat. How long can they hold food like that for lean times? If you skip feeding a colony for a week they won't die. It's not just harvester ants that have resources.

Some of your questions will mean diving into papers on how ants process their food. When I find readable ones I share them (I'm not a biologist ... and I can only take so much vocab!) --I'll keep an eye out for anything that touches on this! 

But, what I'm trying to get at here is ants are complex little creatures and they can survive under many many conditions. Just because they don't die doesn't mean it's what'd they pick if they could choose what they wanted. I have a similar question about this idea that harvester ants are able to live on "just seeds" -- I mean clearly they can... but, mine will go out of their way to collect an insect *before* seeds-- and in the wild insects are a small part of their diet. I think it's probably a good idea to give them an insect now and then in addition to their seeds. And the same is likely true of queen-less colonies. 


Edited by futurebird, May 31 2023 - 6:53 PM.

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#3 Offline Izzy - Posted May 31 2023 - 8:35 PM

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I think this is a case of people taking a general idea "colonies need more protein when they have larvae" to an extreme "Workers don't need it at all!" I picked up this little factoid too when I started keeping ants and I've noticed the same thing you have: Adult ants enjoy some protein. 

This might be one of those cases where a colony of adults can "get by" without protein-- but, to be at their best they need some. 

Ants have an uncanny sense for their colonies needs and there are many factors in their food cycles that complicate this. For example: a colony of adult workers without larvae may eat old silk pupae casings in tough times. My carpenter ants seem to hoard the things in separate garbage piles from their normal trash, and I've caught them munching on it from time to time. What is that about? Recovering protein? I thought maybe they used it as a building material ... but I'm starting to think it's just an emergency snack. 

Likewise another not so obvious thing is the way that majors act as repletes. Even in species where we think of the majors as biters and fighters... sometimes they are just... very fat. How long can they hold food like that for lean times? If you skip feeding a colony for a week they won't die. It's not just harvester ants that have resources.

Some of your questions will mean diving into papers on how ants process their food. When I find readable ones I share them (I'm not a biologist ... and I can only take so much vocab!) --I'll keep an eye out for anything that touches on this! 

But, what I'm trying to get at here is ants are complex little creatures and they can survive under many many conditions. Just because they don't die doesn't mean it's what'd they pick if they could choose what they wanted. I have a similar question about this idea that harvester ants are able to live on "just seeds" -- I mean clearly they can... but, mine will go out of their way to collect an insect *before* seeds-- and in the wild insects are a small part of their diet. I think it's probably a good idea to give them an insect now and then in addition to their seeds. And the same is likely true of queen-less colonies. 

 

I'm inclined to agree. Ant diets are surely more complex than just "workers need sugars" and "queens and larvae need protein" but maybe its just stated that way to keep it clear for beginners. However it seems like this has been pretty much all that I've been able to find about it without doing a deep dive. I would love to see any resources and papers you find on the subject. I'd be interested to see what you discover about the harvester ants as well as I plan to keep some in the future.

The bit about keeping the pupae casings is fascinating. I'll have to watch for that when my carpenter colonies mature a bit more.

 

Thanks for the great response!



#4 Offline ANTdrew - Posted June 1 2023 - 2:13 AM

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Tetramrium in particular are very protein oriented ants. In colonies I’ve kept, there was always a far stronger feeding response for protein than sugars. Another possibility in a queenless colony is workers laying unfertilized eggs, which could grow into males. I have not observed Tetramorium do this, but it may be a possibility.
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#5 Offline Izzy - Posted June 1 2023 - 11:03 AM

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Tetramrium in particular are very protein oriented ants. In colonies I’ve kept, there was always a far stronger feeding response for protein than sugars. Another possibility in a queenless colony is workers laying unfertilized eggs, which could grow into males. I have not observed Tetramorium do this, but it may be a possibility.

 

That's a good point. These Tetramorium ants seem to eat pretty much anything you give them. It's been quite impressive, and yes they still seem to pick the protein the most. I'll keep my eyes open for possible males.



#6 Offline Formiga - Posted June 4 2023 - 9:20 PM

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Another possibility in a queenless colony is workers laying unfertilized eggs, which could grow into males.


Wait... Workers have the biological ability to produce and lay eggs? :blink:



#7 Offline Formiga - Posted June 4 2023 - 9:23 PM

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Hi @Izzy,

 

Here's a reply about my Messors that partially answers your question:

 

 

https://www.formicul...rs/#entry226701


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#8 Offline Serafine - Posted June 5 2023 - 4:12 AM

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Another possibility in a queenless colony is workers laying unfertilized eggs, which could grow into males.

Wait... Workers have the biological ability to produce and lay eggs? :blink:

 

Many ants can, they just can't mate, so they'll only ever produce male. In Temnothorax for example around 30% of the males come from workers (in functioining colonies with a healthy queen).

Camponotus workers will start laying eggs after their queen died, and since their workers can reach almost a decade in age (many won't though), large colonies can still spread their genes for a few years after their queen died (or have a chance to adopt a new queen).

 

There are however queenless ant species, where every ant is basically a worker-queen hybrid - in most such species this includes mating males, there are however a very few that do give virgin birth via parthenogenesis and never produce males at all.


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