Slave-making ant (Polyergus lucidus)

Polyergus lucidus returning from a raid to gather pupae from Formica incerta (host species) with two Formica incerta slave ants (one upper right, one second from bottom right)
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Slave-making ant fact file

Slave-making ant description

GenusPolyergus (1)

Polyergus lucidus is a rare, parasitic ant with an extremely curious life history; all Polyergus ants are ‘slave-making ants’ which enslave ants of other species to provide workers for their own colonies (3) (4). Polyergus lucidus workers (wingless, sterile females) are distinguished from other Amazon ants (Polyergus species) by the elongate mandibles and shiny yellowish-red body (5). The gleaming colour of the body gives rise to the species name ‘lucidus’, which means ‘bright’ in Latin. Polyergus lucidus queens (winged, reproductive females) are larger than the workers, while the males tend to be smaller (3).

Worker length: 5 - 10 mm (2)
Queen length: 20 mm (2)

Slave-making ant biology

All Amazon ants (Polyergus species) are social parasites; they raid nests of ants from the closely related Formica genus and steal the brood for rearing as slaves in their own colony (3). The colony is totally dependent on its slaves to carry out all the necessary tasks in the nest, such as brood rearing, nest maintenance (4), and foraging; the Formica slaves regurgitate food for Polyergus lucidus to feed on (3).

As the Formica slaves die-off, more are captured to replace them, with raids of Formica nests taking place every six to eight weeks (3). During such raids, as well as bringing larvae and pupae back to the nest, Polyergus lucidus workers also eat a large proportion of the Formica eggs (3).

Polyergus lucidus queens (winged females) mate during a flight which occurs around midday in high temperatures (8). The males do not survive long after reproduction, while the queens lose their wings and go on to found a new colony (9)


Slave-making ant range

Polyergus lucidus occurs in the United States, from North Dakota south to New Mexico (5).


Slave-making ant habitat

An inhabitant of prairies and longleaf pine forests (4) (6), Polyergus lucidus has been found in both well-drained areas and poorly drained, acidic, sandy soil (7). It inhabits the nests of Formica ant species, which are generally found under stones (5) (7)


Slave-making ant status

Polyergus lucidus is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable


Slave-making ant threats

Slave-making ants such as Polyergus lucidus are entirely reliant on their host species and typically have smaller populations than other ant species, making them more vulnerable to disturbances (4). The longleaf pine which makes up the habitat of Polyergus lucidus and its slaves in the south-eastern United States is now considered a threatened ecosystem with a distribution of only three percent of what it once was (4). There have also been cases where entire colonies of Polyergus lucidus have become inactive and died out, thought to be due to an unknown disease (7)


Slave-making ant conservation

There are currently no known specific conservation efforts in place for this rare ant; however, it does occur in the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida (and possibly also in other protected areas throughout its range), which may offer Polyergus lucidus some level of protection by conserving the habitat in which it occurs (4).


Find out more

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This species information was authored as part of the Arkive and Universities Scheme.


A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ scientific species name; the second part is the specific name.
Stage in an animal’s lifecycle after it hatches from the egg. Larvae are typically very different in appearance to adults; they are able to feed and move around but usually are unable to reproduce.
The pair of mouthparts most commonly used for seizing and cutting food, common to the centipedes, millipedes and insects.
Organisms that derive their food from, and live in or on, another living organism at the host’s expense.
Describes an organism that derives its food from, and lives in or on, another living organism at the host’s expense.
Extensive areas of flat or rolling, predominantly treeless grassland in North America.
Stage in an insect’s development when huge changes occur, which reorganise the larval form into the adult form. In butterflies the pupa is also called a chrysalis.


  1. IUCN Red List (October, 2010)
  2. Yano, M. (1911) A new slave-making ant from Japan. Psyche, 18: 110-112.
  3. Cool-Kwait, E. and Topoff, H. (1984) Raid organisation and behavioural development in the slave-making ant Polyergus lucidus Mayr. Insectes Sociaux, 31(4): 361-374.
  4. King, J.R. and Trager, J.C. (2007) Natural history of the slave-making ant, Polyergus lucidus, sensu lato, in Northern Florida and its three Formica pallidefulva group hosts. Journal of Insect Science, 42: 1-14.
  5. Creighton, W.S. (1950) The ants of North America. Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard College, 104: 1-585.
  6. AntWeb (November, 2010)
  7. Marlin, J.C. (1971) The mating, nesting and ant enemies of Polyergus lucidus Mayr. American Midland Naturalist, 86(1): 181-189.
  8. Talbot, M. (1968) Flights of the ant Polyergus lucidus Mayr. Psyche, 75: 46-52.
  9. Holldobler, B. and Wilson, E.O. (1990) The Ants. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Image credit

Polyergus lucidus returning from a raid to gather pupae from Formica incerta (host species) with two Formica incerta slave ants (one upper right, one second from bottom right)  
Polyergus lucidus returning from a raid to gather pupae from Formica incerta (host species) with two Formica incerta slave ants (one upper right, one second from bottom right)

© James C. Trager

James Trager
Shaw Nature Reserve
Gray Summit
United States of America


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