Skip to main content

Reclaiming the crown: queen to worker conflict over reproduction in Aphaenogaster cockerelli


In many social taxa, reproductively dominant individuals sometimes use aggression to secure and maintain reproductive status. In the social insects, queen aggression towards subordinate individuals or workers has been documented and is predicted to occur only in species with a small colony size and a low level of queen–worker dimorphism. We report queen aggression towards reproductive workers in the ant species Aphaenogaster cockerelli, a species with a relatively large colony size and a high level of reproductive dimorphism. Through analysis of cuticular hydrocarbon profiles, we show that queens are aggressive only to reproductively active workers. Non-reproductive workers treated with a hydrocarbon typical for reproductives are attacked by workers but not by queens, which suggests different ways of recognition. We provide possible explanations of why queen aggression is observed in this species.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


  • Bourke AFG (1988) Dominance orders, worker reproduction, and queen-worker conflict in the slave-making ant Harpagoxenus sublaevis. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 23:323–333

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bourke AFG (1999) Colony size, social complexity and reproductive conflict in social insects. J Evol Biol 12:245–257

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gobin B, Billen J, Peeters C (2001) Dominance interactions regulate worker mating in the polygynous ponerine ant Gnamptogenys menadensis. Ethology 107:495–508

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heinze J, Smith TA (1990) Dominance and fertility in a functionally monogynous ant. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 27:1–10

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heinze J, Hölldobler B, Alpert G (1999) Reproductive conflict and division of labor in Eutetramorium mocquerysi, a myrmicine ant without morphologically distinct female reproductives. Ethology 105:701–717

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hölldobler B, Carlin N (1989) Colony founding, queen control and worker reproduction in the ant Aphaenogaster (=Novomessor) cockerelli (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Psyche 96:131–151

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hölldobler B, Wilson EO (2009) The superorganism: the beauty, elegance, and strangeness of insect societies. W. W. Norton, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Liebig J (2010) Hydrocarbon profiles indicate fertility and dominance status in ant, bee, and wasp colonies. In: Blomquist GJ, Bagnères AG (eds) Insect hydrocarbons: biology, biochemistry, and chemical ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 254–281

    Google Scholar 

  • Monnin T, Peeters C (1999) Dominance hierarchy and reproductive conflicts among subordinates in a monogynous queenless ant. Behav Ecol 10:323–332

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nakata K, Tsuji K (1996) The effect of colony size on conflict over male-production between gamergate and dominant workers in the ponerine ant Diacamma sp. Ethol Ecol Evol 8:147–156

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Oliveira PS, Hölldobler B (1991) Agonistic interactions and reproductive dominance in Pachycondyla obscuricornis (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Psyche 98:215–226

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ortius D, Heinze J (1999) Fertility signaling in queens of a North American ant. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 45:151–159

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peeters C, Higashi S (1989) Reproductive dominance controlled by mutilation in the queenless ant Diacamma australe. Naturwissenschaften 76:177–180

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peeters C, Hölldobler B (1995) Reproductive cooperation between queens and their mated workers: the complex life history of an ant with a valuable nest. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 92:10977–10979

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Reeve HK (1992) Queen activation of lazy workers in colonies of the eusocial naked mole-rat. Nature 358:147–149

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Smith AA, Hölldobler B, Liebig J (2008) Hydrocarbon signals explain the pattern of worker and egg policing in the ant Aphaenogaster cockerelli. J Chem Ecol 34:1275–1282

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Smith AA, Hölldobler B, Liebig J (2009) Cuticular hydrocarbons reliably identify cheaters and allow enforcement of altruism in a social insect. Curr Biol 19:78–81

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Sommer K, Hölldobler B (1992) Coexistence and dominance among queens and mated workers in the ant Pachycondyla tridentata. Naturwissenschaften 79:470–472

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Young AJ, Carlson AA, Monfort SL, Russell AF, Bennett NC, Clutton-Brock T (2006) Stress and the suppression of subordinate reproduction in cooperatively breeding meerkats. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 103:12005–12010

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank Tanja Bloss, Adam Dolezal, James Garcia, Kevin Haight, Dani Moore, Navdeep Mutti, and Clint Penick for their assistance and three anonymous referees for helpful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adrian A. Smith.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Smith, A.A., Hölldobler, B. & Liebig, J. Reclaiming the crown: queen to worker conflict over reproduction in Aphaenogaster cockerelli . Naturwissenschaften 98, 237–240 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Queen policing
  • Cuticular hydrocarbons
  • Policing
  • Aggression
  • Reproductive regulation