Worker policing limits the number of reproductives in a ponerine ant

Jürgen Liebig, Christian Peeters, Bert Hölldobler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Scopus citations


Reproductive division of labour is an essential feature of insect sociality, but the regulation of sterility among colony members remains incompletely understood. Ant workers and queens are morphologically divergent and workers are only capable of producing males in a colony, although they usually do not do so. Worker policing is one mechanism proposed for their infertility and it can be expressed as either aggressive inhibition of ovarian activity among workers or destruction of worker-laid eggs. A few studies have shown that workers with developed ovaries are preferentially attacked by nest-mates, but adequate demonstration of worker policing also requires evidence that these attacks result in the suppression of ovarian activity or death. We investigated worker policing in the ponerine ant Harpegnathos saltator in which workers are able to mate and replace the founding queen. Five colonies were each divided into two groups, one of which consisted exclusively of infertile workers. Some individuals in the orphaned groups began laying eggs during the three-week separation and upon reunification these were vigorously attacked by infertile workers of the other groups. The ovarian activity of these new egg layers became inhibited, as revealed by subsequent dissection of marked individuals. Worker policing in H. saltator appears to function primarily in preventing an excess of reproductive workers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1865-1870
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1431
StatePublished - Sep 22 1999
Externally publishedYes


  • Dominance
  • Formicidae
  • Harpegnathos saltator
  • Regulation of reproduction
  • Social insects
  • Worker policing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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