Ants are a type of insect that belong to the Formicidae family. They are part of the order of Hymenoptera which also includes wasps and bees.

large ant

Many different species of ants exist. Approximately 12,000 world-wide have been classified but there are estimates that there are as many as 22,000. They live in every area of the world with the exception of Antarctica and a few islands such as Iceland and Greenland.

There are currently around 10,000,000,000,000,000 ants in the world.

These tiny creatures are considered the most intelligent of the insect world and are often studied due to their ability to build strong communities and communicate with each other.

History

Ants have been around since the age of the dinosaur. But while the mighty creatures are now gone, the tiny ant has survived and flourished.

The name “ant” came from the Old English word aemette which meant biter. They evolved from their wasp like ancestors in the Cretaceous period.

E.O. Wilson found the fossil remains of an ant in 1966 that was in encased in amber. It was estimated to have lived 92 million years ago.

Ants obtained ecological dominance after the rise of flowering plants approximately 60 million years ago.

Colonies:

Rarely is one ant seen alone. They are social creatures who live in large groups called colonies. Each colony can contain a million or more ants. The ant colonies work together as a well-organized group.

There are several classifications of ants in a colony. The Queen ant is the only ant that can lay eggs. That is her one and only job. A queen ant can live for years and often lays million of eggs in her lifetime. She has wings when she is young but not after she mates.

The male ants mate with the queen so she can lay the eggs. They have wings but they do not work around the colony. Their lifespan is short. Usually only a few weeks after mating they die.

Infertile, wingless female ants are worker or soldier ants. These ants do all the work around the colony such as gather food, care for the larva, clean, and protect the colony from enemies. Though they are the smallest of the ants they are hard workers and can lift twenty times their own weight.

Every year ants dig up 16 billion tons of dirt while constructing their colonies.

Some species of ants have only one queen per colony while others can have several.

Colonies can exist for eighty years or more. But when threatened, ants can relocate their colonies quickly.

ant

Team work:

Along with building intricate colonies and tunnels ants work together in other ways. Some species of ants use their bodies to form bridges to cross over obstacles.

Fire ants have been known to join together and make themselves into a raft to survive flooding. These rafts consist of thousands of ants, are several inches in diameter and can float for weeks.

When an ant is threatened it can emit an odor that lets other ants know it’s in trouble. The other ants will then come to its aid. Working together is how ants protect themselves despite their small size.

Breeding

During the summer, usually June, a queen ant takes flight and mates with males while in the air. This is called the nuptial flight.

After mating the queen returns to the nest and tears off her wings. The eggs are then laid in the nest. She rarely leaves the nest again but continues to lay eggs for many years. Sperm are kept in her spermathecae and she uses them as needed to fertilize eggs. Unfertilized eggs become sterile female ants who are worker ants.

Development:

The eggs then go through four stages of growth. It first changes to larva. The larva progresses to pupa and then to an adult ant. Worker ants feed the larva by eating food and then regurgitating it in the nest.

The growth process from egg to adult ant takes about three months.

Body Shape:

Ants have an exoskeleton that provides a protective shell around their body. Muscles attach to this outer shell as opposed to mammals that have an internal skeleton.

One distinct feature on the ant is their elbowed antennae.

Their bodies are made up of three segments, the head, the mesosoma or thorax, and the metasoma. Six legs are attached to the thorax. The metasoma contains the internal organs including the stingers for some species. A flexible joint call a petiole connects the abdomen to the thorax.

Ants have no lungs. Air enters through tiny holes in their body and carbon dioxide leaves the same way.

Their eyes are made of many small lenses.

They have tiny hooks are their feet that allow them to climb trees.

Queens and males have wings but the other females do not.

Communication:

Ants often communicate using smell. Ants leave trails of pheromone chemicals that other ants follow using their antennae to sense the smell. They use these trails to lead to sources of food. When the food source is depleted they stop marking the trail and the smell eventually fades.

Pheromones are also used when an ant is injured. It acts as a signal for help and as a warning to other ants.

Some ants produce sounds with their mandibles to communicate with other ants.

Appearance:

Ants are usually red or brown in color though a few species are green. They vary in size depending on their species.

Diet:

Ants eat a diverse diet and are usually classified as omnivorous generalists. They are predators and scavengers as well as herbivores.

They travel up to 700 feet from their nest to forage for food and leave trails so they can find their way back even after dark.

Predators:

Because ants are so tiny they put themselves in danger each time they leave their nest. Even within their nest they are not always safe.

Armadillos like to burrow into their nests and eat them for snacks.

Ant lions dig sand traps that ants fall into and are then trapped by the ant lion’s pinchers.

The worst predator of all is the anteater. These can grow up to six feet long and weigh over sixty pounds. They have thick fur that protects them from stings. The anteater has a long tongue, up to 20 inches, that is covered with a glue-like substance causing the ants to stick to it. The wall of their stomach resists stings and is specially designed with muscles to crush the ants. When an anteater digs into an ant’s nest it can feast on up to 20,000 ants in one meal.

People are also a danger to ants since they often want to rid their yard or home of the tiny insects. They often use poisonous pesticides to get rid of ant nests.

The only means of protection ants have is stinging or biting their predators. They often relocate when they sense danger.

Winter Months

In tropical environments ants remain active all year long. In colder climates they begin to plug the holes in their nests in November. They remain in a dormant stage from December to February staying near the queen ant to stay warm.

Environmental Impact:

Ants help remove pests from the environment. They keep roaches and maggots from overpopulating a forest. Army ants can attack up to 30,000 pests in a single day.

Another way ants help the environment is by recycling leaves.They use their mandibles to saw the leaves from the trees thus reducing potential overgrowth. They then pull the leaves into their nests by carrying the leaves over their heads. After the leaves are in the nests worker ants chop the leaves into small pieces to make a paste. After awhile, the paste grows a fungus which the ants use for food.

When no more fungus can be grown, the paste it is pushed into chambers where it decomposed and provides nutrients for the soil.

Ants can have a negative impact on humans because they eat crops and invade buildings.

Cultural Impact:

In the Bible King Solomon commanded people to study the ant and its industrious ways.In many children’s fables the ant is used as an example of hard work and team work.

Study:

An ant farm or formicarium is often used in classrooms to study how ants build their colonies. These consist of two pieces of plastic or glass that is then filled with soil or some kind of material such as foam.

The farm is thin enough that the tunnels are visible from the outside.

While it is legal to own ants it can be illegal to ship queen ants from one state to another. You’ll need to be aware of your local laws before purchasing an ant farm.

A person who studies ant behavior is known as a myrmecologist. They travel around the world studying the various species of ants and spend decades watching their habitats. A recent Stanford study showed that harvester ants send out forager ants in much the same way the internet decides how much bandwidth is available for sending out a file.

Ants, with their unique intelligence and social habits, will continue to fascinate and inspire study.