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Ready for retirement? Be glad you're not an ant, ASU researcher says.
July 20, 2017

ASU researcher talks about worker turnover and production in colonies, brutal places that won't ever make a 'best spots to work' list

Imagine working for the harshest corporation in the world.

Naturally, they want to maximize production and growth. This is done by investing in lots of low-wage employees, rather than fewer well-paid workers. When production needs to be ramped up, more workers are brought on like holiday employees at a warehouse.

When they’re of a certain age, they’re sent out to die working, with no further help from corporate. All of this produces a large, thriving company.

Ant colonies will never make the list of best places to work, but those are some of the ways they grow successfully. A new study by Arizona State University scientists revealed what makes a thriving colony.

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

“People will be interested to know there’s a lot more going on below the surface here in terms of organization and similarity to us than you might expect just by looking at ants scurrying around on the surface,” said lead author Christina Kwapich.

The study took a year and a half, and it involved counting almost 300,000 individual ants. The researchers were interested in how colonies performed in terms of worker loss and production, and how that affected colony reproduction.

“We went out and measured how many foragers, or ants that came out to collect food, died in a single year and then how many of those workers a colony was able to replace,” said Kwapich, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Life Sciences at ASU. “We did that because big colonies produce more new queens and males than small colonies, and we wanted to see why some colonies are better or worse.”

Colonies that produced the most workers, had the largest territories and did well seasonally were the colonies that produced smaller workers.

Ants bring out their dead. Two and a half acres of colonies produce enough dead ants to weigh as much as a house cat or a newborn baby.

The colony, which is the entire community of queens, workers, larvae and so on, is like a factory. There’s a division of labor, like Henry Ford’s production line. As ants age, they change jobs. The colony needs to allocate labor in an adaptive way.

Ants enter their colony

Christina Kwapich says ant colonies
around South Mountain Park/Preserve
can be 20-30 feet deep or more, 
with the queen residing at the bottom and 
food stores in the midsection.

Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 

“In one of our other studies, we showed that the proportions of colonies of ants who do certain jobs change throughout the year in a way that facilitates the production of new queens and winged males and workers at different times,” Kwapich said. “They’re maximizing production by changing the labor ratios in the colony.”

There’s no cozy retirement awaiting. Foragers don’t live long. It’s like building a bridge for the Japanese army in Thailand. Forager ants turn over 1.7 times per month.

“When the ant comes to the surface and begins collecting food, that’s at the very end of her life,” Kwapich said. “She’ll do that for about 18 days before she dies. The ants had the amount of investment that is corresponding to the life they’ll have on the surface. The colony doesn’t keep investing in them once they start doing this job. They don’t waste the fat young ones; they stay deep in the nest.”

It’s a little economics problem, Kwapich said. More seeds, more larvae, more workers mean a bigger, healthier colony. “That’s the goal of every colony: to reproduce,” she said.

Myrmecologists — entomologists who specialize in ants — know that if a colony has multiple queens, there’s going to be more worker production. That wasn’t the case with desert seed-harvesting ants, the subject of the study.

“What we actually found was that all the colonies had just a single queen, and what differed was the number of fathers that occurred in each colony,” Kwapich said. “We found that colonies with fewer fathers did better than colonies with multiple fathers. What this means is that during the mating flight, a queen either mated with more or less males before starting her colony and letting it grow into this creature with a division of labor and all sorts of interactive parts.”

The paper will be released in the August issue of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. Kwapich’s co-authors were Bert Hölldobler and former ASU faculty member Juergen Gadau.

Incidentally, Kwapich was inspired to go into myrmecology by reading Hölldobler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Ants” when she was a kid. 

 

Top photo: ASU entomology postdoctoral researcher Christina Kwapich takes a sample of ants from a colony in a wash in the South Mountain Park/Preserve in Phoenix on July 18. Her recent research has focused on counting the annual turnover of worker ants within colonies. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

 
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AirGarage student founders get boost from several ASU entrepreneurship programs.
July 24, 2017

Online marketplace to connect drivers, homeowners for affordable alternative to campus; goal is to expand to other colleges

With many major universities nationwide charging $500 or more a year for parking, two students at Arizona State University created a company to alleviate stress associated with finding affordable parking options near campus.

“Parking is so expensive,” said Jonathon Barkl, a physics and economics major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We want to make it more accessible and affordable for students who traditionally can’t park on campus because of the price.”

In September 2016, Barkl and Scott Fitsimones, a computer science major in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, founded AirGarage — an online marketplace for people to list, find and book parking spaces in Tempe, Arizona. For example, a homeowner with enough room in a driveway for an extra car could list that spot and a driver needing to park in that area could rent it. The students are striving to generate value for both parties by creating a market for extra space on private property that may not have previously been thought of as available parking.

“There are a couple other companies that manage parking, but they mostly create value for the parking garage,” said Barkl. “AirGarage is creating new supply to meet the excess demand in parking, which will add new value for two different groups who haven’t seen value for their homes or cars in years.”

After surveying 250 students, Barkl and Fitsimones found nearly 33 percent of the students don’t park on campus, citing prices as the biggest factor in their decision. And, despite paying for parking, a majority of students still walk anywhere from five to 15 minutes to get to their classes.

Currently, AirGarage is focused on helping ASU students find parking close to campus. The student co-founders plan to partner with the city of Tempe to reduce congestion and limit the need for more parking facilities.

“We’re trying to connect people with the untapped resource sitting all around us,” said Barkl.

AirGarage has about 36 spots listed at the moment. As Barkl and Fitsimones figure out how to grow and scale the company, they want to branch out to other universities. From there, the students want to expand to other areas around the country that have parking shortages as well.

“We’ve developed this car culture over the past 100 years, yet the biggest nuisance of our daily lives is finding somewhere to put the 2-ton hunk of steel we use to carry us around every day,” said Barkl. “It’s a little ridiculous that we haven’t come up with a better solution to this problem.”

 

Cofounders of AirGarage: physics and economics major Jonathon Barkl and computer science major Scott Fitsimones
Physics and economics major Jonathon Barkl (left) and computer science major Scott Fitsimones founded AirGarage in September 2016.

 

In November 2016, Barkl and Fitsimones competed in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering eSeed Challenge, a competition hosted through ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation division that encourages students to make a difference in local and global communities through innovation.

After being selected as one of the top ventures, the students won $6,000 in seed funding and an all-expenses-paid innovation field trip to advance their startup, which was hosted by Tom Prescott — the former president, CEO and director of Align Technology Inc.

The students also received guidance from Brent Sebold, the executive director of venture development at Entrepreneurship + Innovation in ASU’s Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development.

“ASU’s entrepreneurship resources were really helpful in being able to found this company,” said Barkl. “They plugged us into a network of bright, successful entrepreneurs, which helped us formulate and develop the idea further.”

In addition, Barkl and Fitsimones took advantage of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law Innovation Advancement Program, which pairs emerging technology companies with ASU’s brightest law students to help solidify a startup’s legal foundation, including the creation of user agreements and contracts.

“ASU’s commitment to innovation has provided the perfect market to help us prove our idea,” said Barkl. “If AirGarage can become a successful startup, it’ll inspire other students and foster a startup culture in the Phoenix metro area.”

For students who want to launch similar ventures, Barkl advised them to just get started. He said it has been a daunting task to start a company going into his junior year of college, but he’s determined to pursue the challenge.

“Taking the first step is the hardest part,” said Barkl. “But if I can create value for people in some way, then I’ve had my impact on the world. My desire to have an impact on people is what drives me.” 

For more information about AirGarage, visit the company’s website or Facebook page