Reader question: who discovered the sex of ant workers?

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A query from the inbox:

Hi, my question is regarding the gender of the worker ants (and the ant queen). As we all know; they are female, however was this discovered many centuries ago or is this a recent discovery?

I plead ignorance.  I know apiculturists had figured out the sex of worker bees in by the late 1700s, and that by the 1800s it was widely accepted that ant workers were also female. But that’s the extent of my knowledge.

So I’m punting to my diligent readers.  Do any of you know who first observed that ant workers are female?

16 thoughts on “Reader question: who discovered the sex of ant workers?”

  1. Here’s what John Mason Good had to say in 1825:

    For the generative process which takes place in these last two kinds [n.b.: ants and bees] we are almost entirely indebted to the nice and persevering labours of the elder and the younger Hüber; who have decidely proved that what have hitherto been called neuters are females with undeveloped female organs.

    I haven’t been able to track down the original reference yet but my money is on Pierre Hüber.

    1. It was known at least two thousand years ago – the date of the compiling of the book of proverbs in the Bible. These proverbs are attributed to King Solomon and include ‘ Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider HER ways…’

      1. I believe that in the original language of the bible, the word ant is feminine, not masculine. For this reason, not for the sex of the ant, the proverb uses the feminine pronoun.

      2. Hahaha I’m replying to 3 year old post. Anyway. Did the author know this information was it common knowledge back then, the sex of insects or was it possibly divine inspiration?

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  3. That is a nice quote Neil.

    I don’t know the answer, but I’ll bet some money that early naturalists, being careful observers, quickly ,and painfully, noticed that worker ants and bees have a sting, which is a definitive characteristic of both social and solitary females in the group.

    The correspondence between the elements that constitute the sting and the ones in the typical insect ovipositor were probably known before the internal undeveloped female organs were dissected for confirmation in workers.

    The number of segments in the antennae may have been another external clue. Male bees and ants typically have thirteen, while females have twelve or less depending on the species. However it is always the same number between queens and workers (I think).

  4. Eduardo A. Diniz

    I saw a work in antbase by Latreille in 1798 (http://osuc.biosci.ohio-state.edu/hymDB/taxon_catalog.list_publications_by_author?id=139)
    he states that like in bees the ant workers apear to be females, and he gives some descriptions of the external sexual organs too. He also make some observations about the work of some author named De Geer who also worked with anatomy and made the same conclusions. So i think tha either Latreille or De Geer discovered that ant workers were females in the late 1700s

  5. For many years now I’ve been trying to figure out who first discovered that pulmonate land snails were hermaphrodites. I recently found some hints that at least some naturalists already knew that in the late 1600s. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that the discovery that all worker ants are females took place at about the same time.

  6. Roberto — Solenopsis workers routinely have 10-segmented antennae, while queens of at least some species may have 11, or vary between 10 and 11. Similar situations may occur in other solenopisidines. (Maybe Acropyga, too???)

  7. I originally got this question via AllExperts.com if my memory serves, and I referred the person here. Glad they came, and very glad so many knowledgeable folks responded. Thank you!

  8. The Qur’an the revelation given to the Prophet of Islam has two books named in Arabic Naml (ant) and Nahl (bee) in which the worker ant and honey gathering bees are referred to in the Arabic as females. So that 1400 years ago!

    1. The word ant is a feminine noun in Arabic. So correct me if I’m wrong, but even for a male any, unless you are specifically referring to its gender, you would use the feminine noun.

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