Podcast: Are There Lazy Ants?

by Ryan Schleeter

June 14, 2016

Check out episode 20 of Completely Optional Knowledge, the podcast that answers questions you never knew you had. Some things in life are #CompletelyOptional — satisfying your curiosity doesn’t have to be one of them.

Painted Ants

Anna Dornhaus and her labmates studying social insects track ant behavior by painting each ant a unique color so they can tell each one apart. Photo by Alex Wild / All Rights Reserved.

© Alex Wild

Have you ever seen an ant just … hanging out? Completely Optional Knowledge listener Bryan Fox hasn’t, and it’s getting under his skin.

To get Bryan the scoop on whether ants’ seemingly steadfast work ethic is just a facade, we called up biologist Anna Dornhaus, who studies social insect behavior at the University of Arizona. She’s the author of a very telling study that found that most ants in a colony are actually just sitting around — and that’s their job.

“Some ants are specializing on particular jobs, and these ants seem to be specializing on doing nothing,” she says. “The ones we see running around are just a very small percentage of all the ants, commonly less than 10 percent.”

But it’s not just certain ants are pulling their weight and others aren’t. Some ants actually “specialize” — as Anna tells us — in doing nothing, and that’s their grand contribution to colony.

“Because they’re insects, being inactive actually means that their metabolism can really slow down, so they aren’t that much of a burden on the colony if they’re just literally hanging out,” she explains.

So, are you productively lazy or just plain slacking? Listen and gauge for yourself:

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Ryan Schleeter

By Ryan Schleeter

Ryan Schleeter is a senior communications specialist with Greenpeace USA covering climate and energy. His writing has appeared in National Geographic, Grist, GreenBiz, EcoWatch, and more. Find him on Twitter @ryschlee.

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