Ants always look so busy, but scientists have discovered there are actually some ants that don’t do much of anything. For human parents, that may sound like an ant version of a teenager.

Studying ants is not easy. To track what they do scientists at the University of Arizona put small dots of paint on them. Then they shoot video to track the ants, even when no scientists are around.

What they discovered was that almost half of the ant colony doesn’t do much.

"They really just sit there," said Daniel Charbonneau, who studied the ants. “And whenever they're doing anything other than doing nothing, they do chores around the nest, like a bit of brood care here or grooming another worker there."

To get them to take out the garbage, though, their moms have to ask them at least five times. I’m joking.

According to Charbonneau, there are four types of ants: lazy ants; walkers who spend most of their time wandering around the nest; foragers who look for food and build protective walls from tiny rocks; and nurses in charge of rearing the baby ants.

After discovering there were so many do-nothing ants, the scientists set out to find out why an ant colony would continue to support so many fellow insects who weren’t helping out.

By removing ants from the colony, the researchers found out that the lazy ants were like soldiers being held in reserve. When a worker ant was removed, one of the lazy ants stepped in to take over. If the lazy ants were removed, however, no ant replaced them. The same is true for other insects that live together, like honey bees.

"We don't know how quickly their populations turn over in their natural habitat," Charbonneau said, "but it doesn't take much for a colony to lose a bunch of workers. Since they can live for up to five years or more, they have to overwinter, and being snowed in claims many workers each season."

So the next time you step on an ant, you may be putting a lazy ant to work.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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