Ants belong to the Formicidae family and are related to wasps and bees. Like some of their stripy cousins, ants are a social bunch, living in colonies and working together. Indeed, they are so communal, that there are no known species of solitary ants.
So how did ants get their name? It comes from an old West Germanic term, meaning biter – more on that later…
Ants are ancient insects and were identified dating as far back as the early Cretaceous period – so these guys have been around a long, long time and they have developed into an impressive 22,000 (so far identified) species. Africa boasts the most species (2,500) and Polynesia the least (42).
Ants are incredibly successful – indeed you will find ants on every part of this planet, except Antarctica and a few very inhospitable regions. In fact, it’s thought that ants make up to 25% of creatures in the world – wow!
As mentioned, ants like to be part of a crowd and colonies can comprise of anything from a modest number of individuals right up to millions! There are various types of ants in the colony structure: firstly, there is the all-important Queen ant, who is the fertile female, laying all the eggs that grow into colony members; then there’s the workers, who are non-fertile females (typical the girls get to do all the work!); there are also soldier ants whose job is to defend the colony (again sterile females – so the girls do get to kick ass too!) and lastly a few fertile males, called drone ants. There are also other specialised sub categories of ant, dependent on the species.
Ants communicate with each other by using touch, sound and chemicals they produce, known as pheromones. These useful substances are used to create ‘chemical trails’ that help lead the workers to food sources. Pheromones can also be used to communicate distress eg an ant that has been attacked can give out a stress pheromone, leading others to come to its aid. Also, pheromones can be used to help defend the colony by confusing ants from other colonies.
So how have ants come to flourish? Well, partly it is their ability to work together as a team, which allows them to defend themselves, help each other, problem-solve and adapt to a wide variety of habitats. They even teach one another about food foraging – yep they really appreciate that there is strength in numbers!
Talking of strengths, did you know that ants are ‘super strong’ creatures and can carry up to 50 times their own body weight? That’s like one of us carrying 4 football teams, plus half a dozen ardent fans into the bargain – Popeye you have nothing on these guys!
Ants are incredibly adaptable and there are examples of species of ants that are herbivores, scavengers, predators and generalists, along with some specialist feeders, including some that establish symbiotic relationships with other creatures, eg ants will “farm” aphids – the ants protect the aphids from predators and in return, the aphids give the ants a sweet drink of honeydew for their trouble.
Most ants are black, red or brown, although there are some that like to stand out from the crowd being green. The biggest ant in the world comes from South America and is called Dinoponera Gigantea – it reaches 3-4cm long (1-1.6 inches), whereas the smallest ant – the Pharoah ant – is a mere 2mm (0.08 inches) and is distributed all over the world. Just in case you were wondering, termites are not ants and belong to a different species altogether.
Ants have compound eyes and also simple eyes that detect light and sunlight levels; their antennae are sensitive to vibrations, wind currents and even chemicals being carried in the air! They also have an impressive pair of jaws, which are useful for picking up objects, feeding (and as anyone who’s been on the wrong end of them will know) delivering a bite! In fact, the aptly named Trap Jaw ant has the fastest jaws known in the animal kingdom! (Blink and you’d miss it!)
If delivering a painful nip wasn’t enough, ants can also sting, which is achieved by either spraying or injecting nasty substances, such as formic acid, into their unlucky victim. Ant stings aren’t usually fatal to humans, although there is one species called Jack Jumper ants, which are highly poisonous and require treatment with an anti-venom. Fire ants can deliver painful stings, which can create anaphylactic reactions in sensitive people. However, the prize of the most painful insect bite of all goes to… (drumroll)… the Bullet ant. This ruthless attacker reputedly delivers a sting of intense pain that lasts 12 hours in a human – it’s reported to be utterly agonising – although not fatal thankfully.
It’s maybe just as well that ants have a good defence mechanism at their disposal, because they have a whole host of predators who feature them on their dinner menus, including other ants, a variety of insects, such as beetles, flies and caterpillars; mammals; birds; fish; spiders; snails and even snakes – and not forgetting the obvious, of course, ant eaters;! (oh yes, and then there’s us too!)
Ants enter into the world as eggs laid by the queen, they are fed and cared for by the worker ants. The eggs hatch into larvae, which go through 5 moults before becoming pupae, with the adult ant emerging from the pupae stage. The first job of any newly born worker is to care for the colony’s eggs and larvae; she then graduates onto becoming a fully-fledged member of the working classes. On occasions, fertile male and female ants are produced – these are usually winged and once fully developed, they leave the nests, fly off (on the quaintly named nuptial flight) and mate. The male drones die soon after mating and the newly mated queens go onto to form new colonies.
Due to their social integrity, ants enjoy a good life expectancy, with queens living up to 30 years and workers up to 3 years – this makes them the longest living insects in the world! In warmer climes, ants remain active all year around; however, in cooler areas, they hibernate until better weather comes along – it’s important that the centre of the colony is maintained at a constant temperature to ensure that the queen and emerging young are kept safe and warm.
The choice of domain varies from species to species, with some ants building complicated nest structures, others using natural crevices and some, more carefree souls, leading a nomadic existence with no fixed abode. Wherever they set up home, ants are houseproud and like to keep their nests spic and span, performing regular cleaning rituals to ensure that good hygiene is maintained, helping to avoid pests and diseases.
Humans probably have a love/hate relationship with ants. On the positive side, ants can help keep pests down and aerate the soil; their venom can be used for medicine and some surgeons in Africa even use ants to close wounds! (woo!) Ants can even be a food source for us. That said, ants can become invasive in buildings or food stores, they can damage crops and be a source of painful bites and stings, all of which brings them into conflict with humans. Although, we can control them if necessary, ants are survivors and it’s impossible to keep a good ant down for long!
It’s not hard to see why the behaviour of ants has long been a source of fascination and study for humankind – since the dawn of time, we’ve been intrigued by their clever, resourceful and adaptable social structure. You have to give it to them, ants really seem to have a winning formula: in fact, I reckon they could probably teach us a thing or two about living happily together!