Ants are highly social insects. They can have nests comprised of millions of workers and twenty queens. The most primitive species’ nests can have just twelve individuals at a time. Nevertheless, all ants belong to the order Hymenoptera. There are more than 186 species of ants in Canada, with more being discovered and imported frequently. All the species are divided into three main social classes, or “castes”.
Workers, all of them female, comprise most of a colony. They forage for food and water to store, and care for young ants in the stages of egg, larvae, and pupae. They clean the nest, and expand the mound in which the nest is situated. Workers stand guard, attack, and defend from other colonies.
The male ants and future queens are called reproductives. Males serve one purpose, which is to fertilize the queens. They only live for a few weeks each year. They all have small heads, with weak jaws, for they live for so little time they do not need to eat. They have bulging eyes to help them sight queens on the mating flight. Males have long antennae, and wings.
The last caste is the queen. They may live up to twenty-five years in captivity, and lay millions of eggs. There are two types of queens. The first is present (already fertilized) and the second is future queens (not yet fertilized). Future queens are nicknamed princesses. The queens are wingless, because they shed their wings after mating. The queens are twice as long as workers. The princesses do not stay long in the colony before going on the mating flight and establishing a new colony of their own. They mate, and fly off. Then they pull off their wings, and start digging a hole, which will become the nest eventually. They can choose whether to lay an egg as a female or a male. They lay all of their first eggs as females. The new queen will care for the first generation on her own. After the eggs hatch, the workers will take over the nest duties. After the first flight, the queen will never mate again.
All adults have three main body parts. First is the head, which contains the mandibles, holding things like food they transport. The head also contains the jaws, used for eating. The ant’s antennae are attached to the head, too. Next is the thorax, to which the legs are attached. The reproductives’ wings are attached to the thorax. Lastly is the abdomen, containing almost all the vital organs.
Ants can be vegetarian or carnivorous. Some ants raise fungus gardens for food. Some ants keep aphids, and “milk” them for honeydew, a sweet substance ants crave. Some even raid other ants’ nests and kill all the adults. These ants then make off with eggs, larvae, and pupae. The ants they steal then develop and serve the “masters” like slaves.
THE “TRADES” OF ANTS
Leaf cutter ants cut pieces out of leaves, hence their name, and carry them back to the nest. Then, they make a pile of all the pieces they collect. The mulchers chew the leaves, and make a paste. The paste is put in another pile. Either the queen, in some species, or the gardeners, in others, plant bits of fungus in the paste. The fungus grows, thus creating a garden for the ants. When the princesses leave a colony on the mating flight, they take a bit of this paste in their mouth. The queens that survive spit out the paste, and start a garden of their own.
The harvester ants gather and store seeds, like squirrels. Then they crush them with their large jaws, specially developed for the purpose. If the seeds get wet, they carry them out to dry in the sun, unless it is raining. They bring in all the seeds at night.
The cow-keeping ants are named as such because they use aphids like we use cows. The aphid sucks a sweet, sticky substance called honeydew from the plant it attaches itself to. The ants tickle the aphids with their antennae. The aphids then produce a drop of honeydew, which the ant greedily sucks up. Depending on the food needs, the ants either milk them, or eat them. Cow-keeping ants bring the aphids into the nest in the winter.
The ant that stimulated the aphid then stores the honeydew in one of its two stomachs, called the crop. The other stomach is the personal stomach, the food in it being used for that ant’s benefit. The crop is a sharing stomach. When a hungry ant asks a full sister for food, the full ant will regurgitate some food from its crop for her hungry sister.
Honey ants gather drops of honeydew from where plant-sucking insects drop it. They store it in their crops, and feed it to particular ants. These specially fed ants then get so full that they cannot move. They hang from the roof of the nest like big fat honey pots!
The workers then get their food from these living lunch boxes. Sometimes a honey pot will fall off the roof, and lie on the floor of the tunnel, waving its legs in the air! Occasionally an ant will burst from being over-filled. Ants will save some of the honey pots for when they want a snack.
Weaver ants live miles above the ground, in nests of leaves. They pull the leaves together, with living chains. Then larvae, held in workers’ mandibles, produce strands of silk, and the silk binds the leaves together, thus making a nest.
Army ants are as formidable as their name sounds. They have no permanent nest, but move around. They are meat eaters, and attack animals as big as elephants when they cannot get away. They sting and bite it to death. The workers cut it apart, and carry it back to the temporary nest. This nest is made of ants, joining their legs together. This nest of bodies is called a bivouac. When the queen lays the eggs and they hatch, they go on the move again.
A common myth is called “The Grasshopper and the Ant”. It tells how the ant busily stores up food for the winter, while the grasshopper sings and plays the summer away. The ant survives, and the grasshopper does not. Ants actually do not store food for the winter. They fill both stomachs, and go to the warmest spot, in the center of the mound. They form into a living sphere of ants, always leaving a ventilation route to the center of the sphere, where the queen is. Warmer ants on the inside constantly replace the cold ants on the outside.
BENEFITS AND DOWNSIDES
Ants turn and aerate soil like worms. They even pollinate some plants, like bees. They help to fertilize soil, and are interesting to watch. On the down side, leaf cutters can ruin plants. The cow-keepers’ herds can destroy crops. Some ants have unpleasant stingers. Some even have acid, which makes humans’ skin itch, and kills other ants.
Ants are fascinating. Next time you see one, do not squash it; instead, marvel at the wonder behind the scenes!