Social insects live in colonies consisting of many workers, where worker interactions play an important role in regulating colony activities. Workers interact within the social space of the nest; therefore, constraints on nest space may alter worker behaviour and affect colony activities and energetics. Here we show in the ant Temnothorax rugatulus that changes in nest space have a significant effect on colony energetics. Colonies with restricted nest space showed a 14.2 per cent increase in metabolic rate when compared with the same colonies in large uncrowded nests. Our study highlights the importance of social space and shows that constraints on social space can significantly affect colony behaviour and energy use in ants. We discuss the implications of our findings regarding social insects in general.