Demography, demand, death, and the seasonal allocation of labor in the Florida harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex badius)

Abstract

As a self-organizing entity, an ant colony must divide a limited number of workers among numerous competing functions. Adaptive patterns of labor allocation should vary with colony need across each annual cycle, but remain almost entirely undescribed in ants. Allocation to foraging in 55 field colonies of the Florida harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex badius) followed a consistent annual pattern over 4 years. Foragers preceded larvae in spring and peaked during maximal larval production in summer (0.37). In spring, proportion foraging increased due to an increase in forager number and reduction in colony size, and in late summer, it decreased as colony size increased through new worker birth and a loss of ∼3 % of foragers per day. The removal of 50 % of the forager population revealed that, at the expense of larval survival, colonies did not draw workers from other castes to fill labor gaps. To determine if labor allocation was age specific, whole colonies were marked with cuticle color-specific wire belts and released, and each cohort's time to first foraging was noted. Workers that eclosed in summer alongside sexual alates darkened quickly and became foragers at ∼43 days of age, whereas autumn-born workers required 200 or more days to do so. Following colony reproduction, these long-lived individuals foraged alongside short-lived, summer-born sisters during the next calendar year. Therefore, the large-scale, predictable patterns of labor allocation in P. badius appear to be driven by bimodal worker development rate and age structure, rather than worker responsiveness to changes in colony demand.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Emily H. DuVal, Joshua R. King, Andrew C. Merwin, Tyler C. Murdock, and Janie L. Wulff for helpful discussions and thoughtful advice. This work was conducted with the assistance of 205,416 ants under US Forest Service permit number APA583, with the support of National Science Foundation grant number IOS-1021632.

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The authors declare that no conflict of interest exists.

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Correspondence to Christina L. Kwapich.

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Communicated by O. Rueppell

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Kwapich, C.L., Tschinkel, W.R. Demography, demand, death, and the seasonal allocation of labor in the Florida harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex badius). Behav Ecol Sociobiol 67, 2011–2027 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-013-1611-9

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Keywords

  • Adaptive demography
  • Caste ratios
  • Foraging
  • Formicidae
  • Labor allocation
  • Pogonomyrmex badius
  • Programmed death