Worker Ants Are Actually Just As Lazy As Us

Ants in the study were painted with dots to track their movement. Daniel Charbonneau

As a species, we humans are pretty good at lounging around and being lazy when we want to be. Turns out we’re not alone, as worker ants also enjoy a bit of downtime.

A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, has found that about 40 percent of worker ants are basically doing nothing at any one time. They essentially hang around waiting for work until they’re called upon. Similar traits have been seen in other social insects, like honey bees.

“They really just sit there,” Daniel Charbonneau from the University of Arizona, the study’s lead author, said in a statement. "And whenever they're doing anything other than doing nothing, they do chores around the nest, like a bit of brood care here or grooming another worker there."

The ants in this study belonged to the species Temnothorax rugatulus. The inactive ants act as a reserve labor force, waiting for a job. This builds upon previous work by Charbonneau and co in 2015, which found that a large chunk of worker ants just sit around on their insect behinds.

In this latest study, the researchers painted tiny dots on different ants to track what they were up to. They found that a colony breaks down into four main demographics. You’ve got the inactive lazy ants, walkers who wander around the nest, foragers that find food and build up the nest, and “nurses” that rear the younger ants.

Ants in the study seen building an artificial nest. Matt Velazquez

Just like a human couch potato might store up a reserve of snacks in their belly, lazy ants were also found to have enlarged abdomens. It’s not clear if this is a result of their lifestyle, but it suggests they may serve as “living pantries”.

Inactive ants were actually found to replace active ants when the latter were removed from the colony. However, when inactive ants were removed, the reverse did not occur. It suggests ants have a limited grasp on supply and demand, but like to have a dormant work force ready to go when needed.

“Since young workers start out as the most vulnerable members of the colony, it makes sense for them to lay low and be inactive," said Charbonneau. "When the colony loses workers, it makes sense to replace them with those ants that are not already busy pursuing other tasks."

So the next time you’re feeling guilty about lazing about, just remember there’s an ant somewhere doing exactly the same thing. Further research will be needed to find out what TV shows they like to binge watch and their beer preference.

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