Based on Aesop’s lore, this is the time when the fabled grasshopper, having idly fiddled away during the more pleasant months, would be knocking at the door of the local ant colony, begging for food. But interpreting the ants’ winter stores as the result of their honest, hard-working nature ignores the fascinating “dishonest” tactics that many ant species employ in order to succeed.
“Social parasitism” occurs when one species exploits another’s social behavior in order to take advantage of its work and resources, though the details of how this plays out in different ant species may vary. For example, some “slave-making” ant species such as Polyergus breviceps perform raids on neighboring nests, kidnapping thousands of larvae and pupae, and incorporating them back into their own colonies as workers.
Others effectively steal the nest out from under a host colony. The queen invades, biting the host queen to death and commandeering the workers of the host colony to provide care for her and her young. As she continues to reproduce, the host workers eventually die out, and her offspring ultimately take over the nest.
This 1990 article from American Scientist vividly reviews the different manifestations of social parasitism in action that Howard Topoff and other ant researchers have observed over the years, including amazing photos of ant violence. Keep this in mind, young grasshopper, the next time your coworkers regale each other around the water cooler with their weekend accomplishments: productivity is not always what it seems.