Optimality theory predicts the maximization of productivity in social insect colonies, but many inactive workers are found in ant colonies. Indeed, the low short-term productivity of ant colonies is often the consequence of high variation among workers in the threshold to respond to task-related stimuli. Why is such an inefficient strategy among colonies maintained by natural selection? Here, we show that inactive workers are necessary for the long-term sustainability of a colony. Our simulation shows that colonies with variable thresholds persist longer than those with invariable thresholds because inactive workers perform the critical function of replacing active workers when they become fatigued. Evidence of the replacement of active workers by inactive workers has been found in ant colonies. Thus, the presence of inactive workers increases the long-term persistence of the colony at the expense of decreasing short-term productivity. Inactive workers may represent a bet-hedging strategy in response to environmental stochasticity.