Most entomologists will be familiar with the idea of polyethism – the idea an ant will conduct different roles inside the colony at different times in its life. This behaviour is not novel, but has recently been demonstrated on an unparalleled scale.
Danielle Mersch and her colleagues tagged every single worker in six colonies of Camponotus fellah and monitored each ant’s position within the colony twice per second using a computer. Over 41 days the researchers collected over 2.4 billion readings and 9.4 million interactions between the workers.
Even within the very limited nest spaces available researchers found there was strict spatial structuring within the nest – nurses and foragers rarely mixed. This has two probable benefits. First, pathogen transfer to nurses tending to brood and the Queen would be limited. Secondly, it allows for more efficient transfer of information to other foragers.
If possible, this kind of technique would best interesting to use in natural environments to monitor behaviour at a colony level.
Video of the heat maps generated showing worker location can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbRRS-eDL0o
The article was published in April in Science.