Division of labor increases with colony size in the harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus

C. Tate Holbrook, Phillip M. Barden, Jennifer H. Fewell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


Size has profound consequences for the structure and function of biological systems, across levels of organization from cells to social groups. As tightly integrated units that vary greatly in size, eusocial insect colonies, in particular, are expected to exhibit social scaling relations. To address the question of how social organization scales with colony size, we quantified task performance in variably sized colonies of the harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus. We found a positive scaling relationship between colony size and division of labor in 2 different contexts. First, individual workers were more specialized in older, larger colonies. Second, division of labor increased with colony size, independently of colony age. Moreover, the proportional allocation of workers to tasks shifted during colony ontogeny-older, larger colonies performed relatively less brood care-but did not vary with colony size among same-aged colonies. There were no colony-size effects on per capita activity or the distribution of activity across workers. Size-related changes in task performance were correlated with changes in the rate of encounter between nest mates. These results highlight the importance of colony size for the organization of work in insect societies and raise broader questions about the role of size in sociobiology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)960-966
Number of pages7
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


  • biological scaling
  • encounter rate
  • group size
  • social insects
  • task allocation
  • task specialization


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