Resource distribution is fundamental to social organization, but it poses a dilemma. How to facilitate the spread of useful resources but restrict harmful substances? This dilemma reaches a zenith in famine relief. Survival depends on distributing food fast but that could increase vulnerability to poisons. We tested how Temnothorax albipennis ants solve this dilemma in the distribution of honey solution after 48 h of starvation in four colonies with individually marked workers. We constructed the complete network of liquid food transmission (trophallaxis) between individuals. Within the first 30 min of famine relief, 95% of the workers received food and the distribution rate was an order of magnitude faster compared to the controls. We tested the assumptions of a simple analytical model that best fitted our data. Good mixing during famine relief was facilitated by the movement of internal workers away from the brood pile and the movement of foragers with food away from the nest entrance. This is intriguing because T. albipennis workers have spatial fidelity zones and in the controls internal and external workers were segregated. We discovered that colony vulnerability to poisons during famine relief might be mitigated by: (1) the dilution of food from the same source through mixing, (2) the concentration of food in workers positioned midway between the colony centre and its periphery and (3) the existence of living ‘silos’. The latter are expendable foragers, who stay inside the nest and store food during famine relief, thus acting as potential disposable testers for food toxicity. Copyright © 2010 Elsevier B.V.
- Temnothorax albipennis