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Hardworking Sisters Enable Insect Colonies to Thrive

Posted On: November 22, 2013

They are among the animal kingdom’s most industrious workers … now a study reveals why colonies of ants and bees depend on females for their success.

Altruistic workers in social insect colonies – such as ants, bees and wasps – are more likely to be female, because their maternal instincts make them better at caring for the queen’s offspring.

The findings come from a study of who does what in these highly organized insect societies. In these species, it is only females that raise the colony’s young. This is in contrast to other insect groups, such as termites, in which both males and females lend support.

However, an analysis of species in which help is shared found that this could not be explained by genetics. Instead, males and females were found to take on jobs to which they are best suited historically – so that species in which females are the main carers, such as ants, are found to have evolved from species in which mothers did most of the parenting.

The study, by researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and St. Andrews and Auburn University in the US, overturns the longstanding theory which suggests that an instinctive drive to help individuals with whom they share more genes is the reason why females assist in rearing the queen’s young.

Dr. Laura Ross, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences, who led the study, said: “The best explanation for why females are more inclined to help in rearing the queen’s offspring is that they are already equipped with maternal behaviors preserved through evolution. In contrast, males aren’t usually involved in parental care, and so they don’t have the skills required.”

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