Being a Single Mother is Difficult,
Even for Insects
In the animal world, parenting is generally not a team thing. Rearing
offspring is frequently left to the mother. But there are exceptions.
Mothers and fathers of many bird species share the duties of feeding offspring.
Some bird fathers-to-be even contribute to incubating eggs.
Males of a few other organisms also help raise junior. Some male fish
guard the nest where the eggs are deposited. One insect, a giant water
bug, carries the eggs on his back until they hatch. Not willingly, however.
That system is based on a female catching a male and gluing the eggs to
his back. She doesn't even care if it is the father. Any male she can
catch is given the job.
Most insects don't provide the slightest bit of child care. The kids
are on their own as soon as they hatch. Social insects are an exception.
Ants, termites and some bees and wasps take good care of their children.
These insects provide what is known as brood care. They feed the young
throughout their immature lives.
In most instances, brood care among the social insects is provided by
a worker caste. These workers are aptly named, for they provide the labor
in the colony. One of their major jobs is that of nursemaid for the baby
insects. In permanent colonies of social insects, such as the termites,
ants and the honey bees, there are always workers in the colony.
There are other social insect colonies that are not permanent. Such colonies
exist only during the growing season. The familiar bumble bee has an annual
colony. So do all of the social wasps, such as yellow jackets and bald-faced
hornets. Social insect colonies, which exist only for a single season,
are started each year by a single mother. That mother is a mated queen
that has spent the winter in hibernation.
It is not easy being a single mother, either for humans or for social
insect queens. Here's how it works in the insect world. First, the mother-to-be
must find a suitable home. If she is an ant queen that emerged from an
ant hill, she searches for a nice place to get into the soil. Once the
queen ant finds an acceptable location, she chews off her wings. The wings
functioned during the mating flight and finding a home but will just be
in the way in the close quarters of an underground ant home. She uses
the energy provided by absorbing the wing muscles to produce enough food
to feed the first few larvae. Once the larvae become ants, they will begin
to gather food and feed the immatures. Then, the queen concentrates on
A queen bumble bee that overwinters also flies around in the spring looking
for a protected place to raise a family. The right place could be in a
straw pile, behind a stack of wood, in a wall void or even an abandoned
mouse nest. Like the ant, she will also lay a few eggs. The queen bumble
bee will then collect pollen and nectar to feed her first-hatched kids.
She doesn't do a very good job of child rearing and doesn't feed them
the best; they turn out stunted. That is why many of the first bumble
bees of spring appear small. Once the stunted, first few bees take over
the child-rearing activities, the quality of the food increases, and the
better-fed bees emerge larger.
Social wasps are much like bumble bees in the way the nest is established.
The mated queens spend the winter hidden in the leaf litter of the forest.
Come spring, they seek out sites to start construction of their paper
nests. Yellow jackets build their nest in the ground, while bald-faced
hornets attach their nests to limbs of trees. Paper wasps prefer a nest
site located under the eves of buildings.
Regardless of the location, the new mother does all of the work raising
the first few offspring. And, then, she turns it over to the eldest children.
That's kind of the way it works in large human families -- the bigger
kids take care of the little ones!