Question 13. Replacing Queen Ants

13)  If a colony with only one queen ant were to die, would she be replaced with another? Or does the colony die out. If she gets replaced, then are there always alates available to replace her at any time? Or are they only produced prior for the mating season, nuptial flight, and etc.? Is there any way of the colony knowing that the queen is about to expire, like some kind of special pheromone?

Mike, you’ve taken us on quite an adventure with your questions. It’s been a fun learning experience for me to dig up the answers for the ones I didn’t know about. If you have any more questions, or you’d like clarification about anything, feel free to ask.

As for the ability of ant colonies to replace their queens, this is a topic that comes up often.

For many temperate ant species with a single queen, the answer is that once the queen dies, the colony is a goner. The worker ants will not accept one of their sisters as a new queen, workers can not become a new queen themselves, nor can they raise a new queen like honey bees do. Some worker ants can produce eggs once the queen has died, but those eggs are unfertilized and will become males.

That said, there are a number of ant species that don’t fit the norm. In species like the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, colonies have many queens, and the males and queens mate right inside the nest. Having many queens allows the colonies to become large quickly. In fact, one problem with Argentine ants is that when they are introduced to places they have never been before, they form such large colonies that they can quickly overwhelm or drive out many native ants, even ants much bigger than themselves. Argentine ants proved to be hugely successful at spreading and are now found almost worldwide.

Another strategy is found in the ponerines that don’t have a distinct, physically different queen. In those species, the egg-laying individual is called a gamergate. When one gamergate dies, the next high-ranking worker takes over laying eggs. Hoelldobler and Wilson discuss this in detail in their book, Superorganism.

Most ants colonies have distinct periods or seasons when the reproductives are produced, but that will vary from species to species and even somewhat from year to year, due to differences in environmental triggers, amount of food, age of the queen, etc.

Finally, the queen probably won’t give off a specific signal that she is weak (it wouldn’t be to her benefit), but there might be a decrease in the pheromone(s) she produces to attract the workers and keep them from producing eggs.

By the way, you might be interested to know that researchers recently synthesized the pheromone of the queen black garden ant and were able to show that it does suppress the ovaries and egg-laying ability of worker ants. See:  University of Copenhagen (2010, July 14). Elusive ant queen pheromone tracked down. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 24, 2010, from­ /releases/2010/06/100630101016.htm

For more information on ant queens, see a previous post answering questions about ant queen development.

If anyone has more information about this they’d like to share, please let us know.

Can a worker ant become a queen?

I have an ant question!

I have an ant farm with Little Black ants but not a queen. can one of the ants become a queen?



I’m afraid once an ant becomes an adult ant, it can no longer change form or shape. It can’t shed its skin or grow.

Adult worker black ants can not become queens, and the worker ants can not lay eggs that will become queens either.

There are a few types of ants where special workers become “queens,” but those ants are much more like wasps, and you wouldn’t want to keep them in a regular ant farm. If you’d like a more detailed explanation, check the ant queen development post.

How are your little black ants doing? I hope they are doing well.

Can ant larvae get too cold or hot?

Mike wrote to the “Consult-Ant” with a number of questions about ants. I am going to try to answer each one in a separate post. For the original list of questions and links to all answers, visit here.

10)  If the eggs, larvae, and pupae were placed in bad conditions, specifically temperature, for a short period of time, would they be harmed?

As you might expect, the optimal temperature for rearing larvae depends on the ant species. In his 1988 paper, Porter found that fire ant larvae (Solenopsis invicta) grew and developed between 24° C and 36° C, with optimal growth at 32 °C. Abril et al. found a range of 18°C to 32°C for larvae of the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile, with optimal development closer to 26°C. Argentine ant larvae held at temperatures above 32°C did not survive.

Of course if the temperatures are hot enough to burn or cold enough to freeze, then the larvae would be harmed even with brief exposures. But what about temperatures that are not extremely hot or cold, but just outside of the range for normal development? Once again, depending on the species, there could be critical windows of development that can be missed if the larvae aren’t reared at proper temperatures. Exposure to low temperatures could potentially stimulate larvae to enter diapause, as well.

Adult worker ants are much less susceptible to changes in temperature. Types of desert worker ants may survive soil surface temperatures of 60 to even 70° C! (Marsh 1985)


In an actual nest, the nurse workers move the larvae from chamber to chamber to ensure the larvae are exposed to the correct temperatures.

Let me know if you have more specific questions.


Abril S, Oliveras J, Gómez C. 2010. Effect of temperature on the development and survival of the Argentine ant, Linepithema humile. Journal of Insect Science 10:97 available online:

Marsh, A.C. (1985). Thermal Responses and Temperature Tolerance in a Diurnal Desert Ant, Ocymyrmex barbiger. Physiological Zoology, Vol. 58, No. 6 (Nov. – Dec., 1985), pp. 629-636.

Porter SD. 1988. Impact of temperature on colony growth and developmental rates of the ant, Solenopsis invicta. Journal of Insect Physiology, 34(12): 1127-1133.

Can Ants Digest Chitin?

Mike wrote to the “Consult-Ant” with a number of questions about ants. I am going to try to answer each one in a separate post. For the original list of questions and links to all answers, visit here.

9) Ants(obviously) eat other insects, and I probably lack observation skills but do the ants also eat the exoskeleton also? Do they (or the larvae) have some way of digesting chitin? I did see that the ants pretty much leave MOST of the exoskeleton intact, and go for soft parts.

You have definitely got some challenging questions here. I’m going to give this one a try, but if anyone knows more about this, please jump in.

You probably have seen bug bits (discarded exoskeletons) littering the trash heaps around ant nests.


trash-heap3Many arthropods, including insects, have long chain polysaccharides in their cuticle known as chitin. (Chitin is also found in fungi, which was one of the lines of evidence that moved fungi into their own Kingdom.) The exoskeleton of insects is also made up of various proteins and waxes.

Chitin is known to be difficult to digest. It’s long chain polysaccharide structure is similar to cellulose, which is also difficult for animals to use as food. The digestion of chitin requires special enzymes, chitinases, to break the strong bonds between the molecules. For a time it was thought that chitinases only occurred in a few bacteria, but evidence is showing up that certain animals have chitinases in their digestive systems, too.

It turns out that insects have chitinases able to break down chitin, but they aren’t where you might expect them. The chitinases in insects are in the cuticle and are used to move chitin during molting.

We know that adult worker ants can’t digest solids, so they can’t digest chitin. What about larvae?  It is highly unlikely, because the larval digestive system is also lined with chitin. When insects molt, they also shed most of their digestive tract, which is derived from the same tissues as the exoskeleton. Therefore, it seems larval ants probably couldn’t digest chitin without digesting their own alimentary canal.

Many arthropod predators of insects suck out the insects fluid insides. Think about spiders, assassin bugs, lacewing larvae, etc. They are all feeding on fluids.

If it is true that insects can’t digest chitin as a food source, this leads to some other questions. Leafcutter ants feed on special fungi, which they grow in their nests. Do the fungi they grow have chitin? Do the leafcutters have gut symbionts or some other means to digest that chitin?

If there are any chitin experts out there, it would be great to have some clarification.