At the Science Times, Adele Conover profiles Anna Dornhaus:
Dr. Dornhaus is breaking new ground in her studies of whether the efficiency of ant society, based on a division of labor among ant specialists, is important to their success. To do that, she said, “I briefly anesthetized 1,200 ants, one by one, and painted them using a single wire-size brush, with model airplane paint — Rally Green, Racing Red, Daytona Yellow.”
After recording their behavior with two video cameras aiming down on an insect-size stage, she analyzed 300 hours of videotape of the ants in action. She discovered behavior more worthy of Aesop’s grasshopper than the proverbial industrious ants.
“The specialists aren’t necessarily good at their jobs,” she said. “And the other ants don’t seem to recognize their lack of ability.”
Dr. Dornhaus found that fast ants took one to five minutes to perform a task — collecting a piece of food, fetching a sand-grain stone to build a wall, transporting a brood item — while slow ants took more than an hour, and sometimes two. And she discovered that about 50 percent of the other ants do not do any work at all. In fact, small colonies may sometimes rely on a single hyperactive overachiever.
Why do some worker ants lean on their shovels and let the rest of the workers do all the work? “It’s like students living together — you’ll always find one will have a lower threshold for doing the washing up and will end up always doing it all,” she said.