Living With “Lazy Workers”


An ant and an aphid rest on a peony bud.

Humans have many misconceptions about social insects that are falsified by careful study. The casual observer may think of the bee hive or the ant colony as a swarm of continuous activity. However, closer inspection finds that some workers more actively complete tasks than others. The “inactive” or “lazy” workers will perform work, but these individuals require a higher stimulus before they will begin work. Why would insect societies (or any society) tolerate “laziness”?

Insect colonies have some tasks that need to be done around the clock. It turns out that insects, like all other animals can tire and need a rest. When the active workers tire and their tasks go undone, the stimulus threshold will become high enough that the “lazy” workers will start doing the work that needs to be done. The “lazy” workers it turns out are not that “lazy”. They form a pool of reserve workers that can do vital tasks when called.

Hasegawa* and colleagues have studied lazy workers
*Hasegawa E, Ishii Y, Tada K, Kobayashi K, Yoshimura J. Lazy workers are necessary for long-term sustainability in insect societies. Scientific Reports. 2016;6:20846.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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1 Response to Living With “Lazy Workers”

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