Intraspecific variation in colony founding behavior and social organization in the honey ant Myrmecocystus mendax

T. H. Eriksson, Berthold Hoelldobler, J. E. Taylor, Juergen Gadau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Persistent cooperation between unrelated reproductives occurs rarely in mature eusocial insect societies, and when present, is frequently geographically constrained. Here we present genetic and behavioral evidence showing that primary polygyny occurs in some, but not all populations of the honey ant Myrmecocystus mendax. Specifically, we found that all mature colonies sampled in a population in the Sierra Ancha Mountains of central Arizona (USA) were polygynous with a relatively high number of queens (average = 6.27), while the majority of mature colonies sampled in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona were monogynous. Field and laboratory observations showed that Chiricahua foundresses are primarily haplometrotic, whereas Sierra Ancha foundresses can be either haplometrotic or facultatively pleometrotic. Nestmate relatedness of mature Sierra Ancha field colonies suggests that the reproductive individuals within these colonies are unrelated, consistent with primary polygyny. In the laboratory, Sierra Ancha foundresses cooperatively established incipient colonies without queen reduction, and colonies with multiple queens produced more minims and workers that may serve the role of repletes (honeypots) than haplometrotic colonies. This was in stark contrast to foundresses from the Chiricahua population, which showed strong aggression when forced to found colonies together in the laboratory. When brood raiding was experimentally induced between laboratory Sierra Ancha colonies, queens from colonies with more workers had a higher survival probability, although in some cases the competing colonies fused and queens from both colonies continued to reproduce. Fusion between incipient ant colonies is a rare phenomenon, but could contribute to the high frequency of polygyny and high queen number in mature colonies in the Sierra Ancha population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)283-297
Number of pages15
JournalInsectes Sociaux
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2019


  • Colony fusion
  • Honey ant
  • Myrmecocystus
  • Pleometrosis
  • Primary polygyny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Insect Science


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