Sex-ratio dependent execution of queens in polygynous colonies of the ant Formica exsecta
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Formica exsecta has become an important model system for studying intraspecific variation in sex ratios. Patterns of sex allocation in polygynous (multiple queen per nest) populations of F. exsecta are generally consistent with the queen-replenishment hypothesis. This hypothesis states that colonies produce gynes (reproductive females) in order to increase queen number and enhance colony survival and/or productivity when the number of resident queens is low. However, the small proportion of colonies that raise gynes produce more than necessary for simple queen replenishment. It has been hypothesized that excess production of gynes may occur to reduce the frequency of accepting foreign unrelated gynes into the colony when workers cannot distinguish nestmate from non-nestmate queens. This explanation for excess gynes requires weak or no aggression between non-nestmates and is expected to lead to the selective execution of new queens by colonies that do not invest in the production of gynes. Experimental studies where gynes were introduced into natal and foreign colonies indeed suggested that polygynous populations of F. exsecta have a poor nestmate recognition system. Although gynes were significantly more likely to be accepted in their parental colony compared to another foreign female-producing colony, the difference was small. Moreover, encounters between workers from different colonies within the population showed very little aggression and were no more aggressive than encounters between nestmates, again suggesting a weak capacity for nestmate recognition. Our experiment also showed that colonies that produced only males executed most of the gynes that were experimentally introduced into the colony, whereas female-producing colonies accepted most gynes. This is consistent with ants using a simple rule of thumb to decrease parasitism by unrelated queens, whereby colonies selectively destroy gynes whenever gynes are not produced in the colonies.
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