Why was the baby ant confused? Because all its uncles were ants. For a lot of people, that old-time joke is about as far as their knowledge of ants goes (if it goes that far), and that’s too bad. Why? Because as it turns out, ants lead pretty interesting lives, and because they’re so numerous, we’re probably more likely to come across them more often than any other insect – that is, if we know where to look. In fact, there are so many ants in the world – about a million trillion of them – it’s a good bet you’ve seen at least a few in your own back yard, or even in your home. And because ants are all around us, they provide us with a great way to learn a little bit more about the world of insects.
Like all insects, ants begin their lives as tiny eggs, and each egg is cared for by a devoted colony. Ant eggs have something else in common: They’re all produced by the colony’s queen, which can lay thousands of eggs in a single day. In fact, her sole function is to lay eggs, and during her lifetime, she can produce millions of them.
Queen ants have an amazingly long lifespan, with queens of some species living up to 30 years! Most queens require a male ant to reproduce, but queens of some species can reproduce spontaneously without a male. During her entire life, a queen is fed and cared for by the worker ants – her own “children” – and when the queen dies, in most cases, the entire colony eventually dies off as well.
Queens are certainly the head of the ant family, but while they play an important role, they couldn’t do it without the support of the other members of the ant family: workers, drones and princesses. All of these “siblings” begin life as eggs; it’s the care they receive during their “infancy” – the larval stage – that determines what they’ll become. Ant larvae have no legs – in fact, they don’t have many features at all, and their movement is very limited; in fact, workers may pick up and carry the larvae from one area of the colony to another to keep these “ant babies” at the ideal temperature for growth and development.
During the larval stage, the baby ants will be fed and cared for by other members of the colony, and the amount and type of food they receive will determine their futures: ants that receive low levels of nourishment will grow to become female worker ants, while those that enjoy a more plentiful diet will become fertile females, eventually flying off to form their own colonies. These immature fertile female ants are sometimes called princess ants. (More on that later.) In some species, a few female ants will develop into fierce soldiers whose job is to protect and defend the colony against invaders and predators.
Eggs that aren’t fertilized become male drone ants whose sole function is to fertilize princess ants. Like the princesses, drones have wings, and they leave the colony at the same time as princess ants from their own and neighboring colonies. Drones live only for a few months at most, and if they wind up finding a mate, they die immediately after mating.
After the larval stage, ants enter the pupal stage, with some species spinning silk cocoons for protection and warmth. During the pupal stage, the ant develops into the adult form we’re used to seeing, although initially it will be much paler, changing to its darker color as its exoskeleton (the exterior shell) hardens.
At some point when the weather is warm and clear, the princesses and the drones leave their colonies and fly off, usually mating in midflight. Mating can occur between ants from the same colony or between ants from different colonies. After mating, the drones die and the princesses land on the ground, shedding their wings and often eating them for nourishment. Their next task: Find a spot to establish a new colony.
Once she finds the best spot, the princess – now a queen – burrows into the ground and remains inside her new home, beginning the arduous task of laying the first batch of eggs. While those eggs develop and grow through the larval and pupal stages, the new queen must survive by living off her own stored reserves and whatever little nourishment she can glean from her surroundings. After the first brood has matured, these worker ants immediately go out in search of food for the queen and for themselves. Because this initial brood doesn’t have the benefit of being “hand fed” by a troop of dedicated worker ants, it’s typically smaller and weaker than subsequent broods.
Ants have a very clearly defined society, with colony members fulfilling specific roles and assuming very specific duties. Although it may look like ants are just moving haphazardly along the ground, they’re actually very well organized, usually looking for food or keeping an eye out for predators. When they find a food source, they communicate with each other using chemical signals. These same chemicals are used to create a trail so the ants can find their way back to the colony when out foraging for food. And although they don’t have ears, ants can tell when or where a potential enemy might be lurking by feeling tiny vibrations with their feet, sort of the way our eardrums detect small vibrations caused by sounds.
When an ant runs into another ant from a hostile colony or another insect it feels is a threat, it fights, usually to the death. Soldier ants have larger heads than regular worker ants, with powerful pincers or jaws specifically designed for fighting and defending the colony. Sometimes, soldiers from two colonies will fight, with the victorious soldiers carrying off the eggs from the defeated colony. These eggs are nurtured and raised in the victors’ colony, and when they hatch, they become the colony’s slaves.
Ants have a pretty varied diet, but most species have foods they definitely prefer – for instance, carpenter ants like sweet fruit, especially melons, while red fire ants prefer to gorge on tiny insects, including other ants. Like people, ants are omnivorous, which means they can eat lots of different foods. And, like humans, they really love sugar, including the nectar from flowers. Many ant traps use water mixed with sugar as a simple bait since ants find this simple mixture pretty irresistible (as anyone with a hummingbird feeder can attest).
Many ants also love “honeydew,” sweet secretions produced by tiny insects called aphids that suck the sap from many plants. In fact, ants are so crazy about aphid honeydew, many ants act as tiny aphid “shepherds”, tending their “flock” just as a person cares for livestock. These aphid-herding ants milk the aphids by stroking them; some species of aphids have become so dependent on ants, they no longer secrete honeydew on their own, but rely on their herders to do it for them. In turn, ants help the aphids by fighting off predators and when a plant runs out of sap, the ants carry the aphids to a new food source.
Aphid-herding ants aren’t the only ones with complex eating habits. Leaf-cutting ants are named for their habit of clipping tiny bits of leaves and carrying them back to their colonies where they process the leaves into food for fungi. These fungi are then used as food for the larvae. Leaf-cutting ants are so sensitive to the fungi they “farm,” they can tell which leaves the fungi prefer and which vegetation is toxic to the fungi.
That’s what ants eat – but what eats ants? Turns out, plenty of animals – and other insects – find ants pretty delicious. Many people also eat ants; in fact, in some countries, certain species of ants are considered delicacies. In Colombia, for instance, a species of leaf-cutter ant is toasted and eaten, while in Thailand, spicy red ants are served in salads or stir-frys. Many ants contain formic acid which, in small quantities, imparts a tangy or “lemon-like” taste.
Ants are colonial, which means there’s no room for dissension – every ant pulls for the same goal: survival of the colony. It’s a strategy that’s paid off handsomely. Today, ants are found all over the world, braving even very harsh environments to not only survive, but thrive. And where they live, they exert a pretty powerful and widespread influence over the surrounding environment, moving far more earth than worms when creating and managing their colonies so the ground remains aerated and important nutrients are moved to the surface. Ants also support germination by carrying seeds to their nests where even the toughest seeds find it easy to root and grow. Plus, many ants aid in pollination, especially for low-growing flowers, and they consume large quantities of pest insects and their eggs, helping to keep populations of silverfish, flies, fleas and even roaches under control.
Some ant species are especially territorial, protective and aggressive, including the Argentine ant, which has spread throughout the world, displacing local species of ants and establishing giant “mega colonies” that stretch for miles along the coasts of California and Japan and some areas of the Mediterranean. These ants rely on a relentless warrior approach, mounting battles and confronting enemies in one concerted effort, operating as a single “super organism” rather than as millions of individuals.
Of course, with huge colonies and vast territories, ants and humans were bound to collide at some point, and many ants have found they enjoy living in our homes where tiny crumbs and a protected, temperature-controlled environment make a great place to settle down. While a few ants aren’t necessarily anything to be concerned about, having a whole colony set up shop is a recipe for disaster. Carpenter ants can be especially destructive, carving out tiny tunnels just like termites to provide places to lay eggs, raise young and store food. Each year, pest companies are swamped with calls from homeowners seeking help in evicting these tiny, unwanted tenants. Many infestations can be prevented with simple home maintenance like trimming back overhanging limbs or sealing areas where dampness makes wood studs and joists damp – and ripe for chewing. And remember – for the most part, ants are beneficial insects; you may not want them in your home, but in your yard and garden, they can do a lot of good.
This article provides an overview of ants, their life cycle and their habits. But it’s still just the tip of the iceberg (or anthill, if you prefer). Whole books have been written about these tiny, ubiquitous insects. If you’re still thirsting for more, here are a few interesting more interesting facts about ants:
Ants are, literally, just about everywhere, and although they may seem like a nuisance if they invade our homes or interrupt a family picnic, they perform an amazingly important role in maintaining a healthy, diverse environment. The next time you see an anthill sprout up in your garden, take a few moments to think about the incredibly complex society it houses and how hard those tiny insects are working to make the world a better and more interesting place to live.