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Long live the queen!

09 May 2006

The queen of the Natural History Museum's ant colony is alive and well after she was pronounced dead.

Leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) in the Museum's ant colony exhibit.

Leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) in the Museum's ant colony exhibit.

Last December the worker leafcutter ants (Atta cephalotes ) in the colony were seen dismantling the nest so curators thought the queen had died. But around a month later everything was back to normal.


Worker and soldier ants 'serve' the queen and the colony by collecting food, tending the young and building the nest. An explanation for the ant behaviour could be just that they were giving the nest a tidy, or even rebuilding it.

Super colonies

Typically, ant colonies produce queens and males annually, and the mated queens disperse to create new colonies with other queens staying on to form a super colony.

The queen ant is crucial to the colony and she can lay up to 30,000 eggs every day. In the past 10 years the Museum has had to replace the queen and colony three times.

Nine-year-old worker ants

Sir John Lubbock, a Victorian entomologist, published many observations on ant colonies in the 1880s, based on his own 'antariums' containing common species of British ants. Stuart Hine, insect expert at the Natural History Museum, said, 'Sir Lubbock found out that there were many different jobs that worker ants performed and interestingly some of his worker ants lived for over nine years. '


The colony of leafcutter ants is a living exhibit in the Creepy Crawlies gallery at the Museum and visitors to the website can watch the ants through the live Antcam.

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