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Essentially, I'm planning on designing a race of sapient aliens with a sterile worker caste, but I have one big problem: On earth, sterile workers castes are only found in groups of thousands or millions. How can I have a group have sterile workers when it only contains 30-45 adults? Is this even remotely possible, and, if it isn't, what is the smallest number that can sustain sterile workers?

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  • $\begingroup$ There used to be ant species with only 30 to 60 members per colony if I remember correctly ("T-rex Ant"). The reason they didnt work was evolution rather than the workers not being able to sustain them. If a colony of a few tens of thousands decided to attack there just werent enough small colonies to withstand them. I would even say that you can have a single sterile worker per person. They can feed themselves and you if they work hard enough. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 9:08
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    $\begingroup$ functionally the males of all herd species are 99%+ "sterile", in that they will never participate in mating. It's only the bull of the herd that is effectively male, all the rest of the males are merely spares. It is no great stretch to go from "socially sterile" to "actually sterile" $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Commented Jan 18, 2022 at 18:29

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You are probably neglecting the size of those beings and the influence it has on the survival effort.

Sterile workers are present in insects like bees, ants and so on. They have to supply with numbers to their small size.

On the other hand, for a human sized creature, a few tens of adults can be self sufficient. Many monasteries or monastic communities in the past had that many elements, were forcefully non reproducing (at least in theory) and were able to be self sufficient. They just relied on the outside for a continuous influx of new members, since of course they could not produce them in situ.

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Make them haplodiploid

It is thought that the reason why hymnopterans (ants, bees, and wasps) are prone to developing eusocial tendencies is mostly due to a quirk in their sexual selection traits on a genetic level. Hymnopterans exhibit haplodiploidy, where unfertilized eggs develop into males and fertilized eggs develop into females. This creates an unusual situation where sisters are more closely related to each other (sharing 3/4ths of genes) than they are to their own daughters (sharing 1/2 of genes).

According to the kin selection theory of altruism, this suggests that sisters will be more prone to treat each other altruistically than any one of their own children (or, if you want to translate into human terms, it means that their "sisterly love" will tend to be stronger than "parental love"). This is in contrast to most animals, where they are around the same. It means that, while they would still prefer to reproduce themselves, they will be more likely to sacrifice their own reproductive potential for the sake of their sisters than non-haplodiploid animals would be.

Mammals are pretty firmly locked into the X-Y sex determination system, and so are not likely to go haplodiploid. But there's no reason why that must have been the case. On an alien planet, haplodiploidy could be the norm for the clade where intelligence emerged and eusociality would be far more likely.

It is worth noting that eusociality is a spectrum, not a line. Some social hymnopterans don't have true queens, but rather gamergates - reproducing dominant females who actively keep their sisters from reproducing using chemical signals and sometimes even worker policing, destroying the eggs of their rivals and punishing the one who laid them. Bees have non-reproducing castes but multiple potential queens often exist within the same colony and may fight for dominance (notably, bees will also reproduce with multiple drones, and the children from different drones are less related to each other than children from the same drone.) And some do not exhibit eusociality at all, but are still gregarious and live within the same hive.

While there is an observed association between colony size and eusociality in insects, this is less because small groups can't be eusocial, and more because large groups can't not be eusocial.

Eusocial groups tend to grow at a linear rate, while non-eusocial groups tend to grow exponentially. This means that the food requirement of a non-eusocial group is much more pressing than that of a eusocial group. Without technologies such as farming, a non-eusocial group that does not disperse and find new territories (breaking up the colony) is likely to starve to death, while a queen can simply stop having children once the food/population ratio drops too low.

In short, there is no reason why a small group cannot have sterile workers, but you can make it more likely through haplodiploidy.

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Dinoponera grandis colonies have an average size of 14-30 individuals.

Life on Earth is diverse and adapts to many different niches and situations. The Dinoponera genus took a page from the french and destroyed their nobie class. The revolution made it so that all ants are equal and able to reproduce. Then the little godless bastards saw that it is much harder to rear children when you don't have three thouaand nannies and you have to make them on top of foraging or guarding the nest.

In practice you have single moms being the chiefs of 10-30 ant households. Many of their daughters will never leave their mothers' homes to reproduce, and being a spinster is as good as being sterile. They blame the economy and the behaviour of the males.


So in your case, make it so that the reproducing individuals do not specialize in doing just that. They will have less children because of resource allocation - they just don't have the time, money and motivation to make more.

Human societies kinda work like that too. In developed countries populations are aging and shrinking because people don't prioritize making more people. But even in those places there are always communities in which women are expected to be professional mothers and nothing else (e.g.), and so you see couples with nine or ten children.

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It's been a few decades since my bees escaped my bonnet, but if I recall from Basic Beekeeping 101 (aka How not to get stung to death while gathering honey), ANY freshly hatched female bee pupae could emerge as a queen if the workers provided her with large quantities of the correct food (royal jelly).

It looks like you want a species in need of more breeding females plus a much smaller number of a helpful sterile (or nearly sterile) worker caste. In this case, the method of treating the babies lets a more individually intelligent breeding female of a species decide exactly how many female eggs are raised to be able carry on the family line and how many are to be feed the correct diet to become workers.

If these queen equivalents are cabable of caring for themselves, their husband(s) (who may not be around, depending on how closely the bee analogy is followed) and their offspring, the absolute minimum number of workers needed is zero. You could just have a queen and a few young daughters not yet ready to mate taking care of some eggs.

Of course, a busy queen has a lot to do, so most would probably want a few workers to help around the house and some more to go out and gather pollen, or paychecks if that's how your planned world works.

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If I understood correctly by small groups you mean small group of workers (slaves) for a wealthy family, something like a constant slave trade would work. A big company produces them using in vitro fertilisation and sells the embryos to be raised in vitro where they are needed. Or they could be produced the in the style of Brave New World.

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