Friday, July 6, 2018

Ants: The Grandmasters of the Insect World

The Social Structure of Ant Colonies Resembles a Chess Board

The Queen is the most powerful ant in the hive. If the queen is lost – the colony is lost. She is the founder and leader of the colony. She populates the colony by laying thousands of eggs. She produces pheromones that induce the entire colony to work and remain together, while she stays deep within the colony, safe from predators.


Send in the Drones

The drones are the males and have wings so they can perform their only task for the nest - mating with the queen. It sounds like a great life but once they mate they die. Drones are only around for a few days each year.


Why Wings?

The race is on! Mating takes place in the air not long after the queen exits her cocoon. Why in the air? Most likely for protection from predators while the queen is exposed. Once fertilized, she rips off her own wings and begins a new colony. The queen takes care of her first batch of eggs and once the first hatch is out of their cocoons, the workers take over the caretaking of the colony. More about the workers later.

The queen only needs to be fertilized once. After this, they will carry a lifetime supply of sperm in a sac. Queens use this supply to fertilize the more than 1,000 eggs per day they will lay per day.


The Workers Resemble Pawns

The largest part of the nest population are female worker ants. They don’t lay eggs but they do everything outside of reproduction to keep the colony thriving. They build and maintain the nest, clean and care for eggs, clean and feed the queen, tunnel and build chambers and act as soldiers to protect the nest.

For some, their job can be identified by their appearance:

  • Guards have big heads and jaws.
  • Workers that store honeydew have big abdomens.

At some point in the life of the hive, the queen lays special eggs that hatch into alates (reproductives). These populations include winged males and females with the job of leaving the swarm and to create new colonies. 


They Can Live Long and Prosper

Colonies have varying lifespans that are specific to species. A healthy fire ant colony can live for up to 7 years; some other species may survive for 20 years. Not only do the colonies’ behaviors and lifespans vary, but the social structure of colonies is unique and complex.

Hierarchy within a colony is determined by a number of factors including the distribution, size and labor patterns of the colony change as the nest grows and the ant’s age.

  • Young workers start out low in the nest and they look after the brood and the queen.
  • These workers move up in the nest as they age. They also take on more responsible jobs over time. During their middle age, they maintain the nest, prepare food and store seed. As elders, they move into the highest level of the nest and become guards, trash collectors, and finally, foragers.
  • The members of the colony talk to each other using chemicals and they can recognize genetically related ants by their unique smell.

The behavior and social structure of ants can be used to understand how to safely, effectively and efficiently control them. We’ll tackle that and some of the weird behaviors of specific ant species in the next blog. 

- Contributed by Deb at ARBICO Organics


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