You can find ants in all continents except in Antarctica, Greenland, Ireland and the Hawaiian islands. They have lived on the earth for more than 100 million years. They eat all kinds of food. They are direct or indirect hebivores, predators and scavengers. Most of the ants are omnivorous but a few only eat certain food.
Isn’t it amazing to know that the ants all together weigh more than the vertebrates in most places. It has been estimated that the total biomass of all the ants in the world is approximately equal to the total biomass of the entire human race.There are also some species of ants which are highly endangered. These are mainly island species like Sri Lankan relict ant and Adetomyrma Venatrix of Madagascar.
Ants come in different sizes. They can measure about 0.75 to 52mm. The largest ant species is the fossil Titanomyrma giganteum. It was a queen ant which was 6cm long with a wingspan of 15 cm. You can find ants of different colours. Majority of them are red or black, but a few species have metallic gloss colour. More than 12,000 species are currently known in the world. Their body have 3 main parts, the head, the thorax and the abdomen. They have an outer covering to protect their bodies.
Like many insects, ants do not have lungs. Ants breathe through tiny holes called spiracles which are located all over their body. They have long thin tube which functions like a heart to pumps colourless blood from the head back to the abdomen and then back up to the head again.
The head is make up of two strong jaws, the eyes and the antennae. The antennae are used to smell, touch, taste and hear. You can find their stomach and rectum in their abdomen. Many ants species have stingers at the end of their abdomen to protect them from predators. They have compound eyes which means the eyes are made up of many tiny lenses which are attached together. These special eyes help the ants to detect fast movement very well. but they cannot see clearly. They have 3 simple eyes on top of the head to detect light levels and also the direction of the light. Most ants have poor to average eyesight compared to vertebrates. They are a few underground living ants species which are completely blind. However, Australian bulldog ant has great eyesight.
The jaws are used to carry food, to build nests and also for defence purposes. In some species, there is a small pocket inside the mouth to store food for other ants or larvae like a kangaroo pouch. All their six legs are attached to the thorax. Three on each side. There is a hooked claw at the end of each leg helps the ants to climb and hang onto surfaces like trees, walls etc.
Ants live in large colonies or groups. All ant colonies can be long-lived. There are about a million of ants in a large nest. In each colony, there are three types of ants, the queen, the female workers and males. The male will mate with the queen ants so that she will be able to lay eggs. After that the male ant will die. What a miserable life! The queen ant is much bigger compared to all the other ants. She is the leader of the colony. She is the only one in the colony which spend all her life laying thousands of eggs. She can live up to 30 years old and worker ants will live from 1 to 3 years. Ants are active and diligent all year long in the tropics but in cooler places they are inactive.
Ants go through 4 life stages. They are egg, larva, pupa and adult. The larva hatches from the egg and is fed by the workers ants. Most of the larvae do not move at the larva stage. Larva and pupa need to have a constant temperature environment in order to grow properly. From pupa stage , the ant will change into an adult ant. A new worker ant spend the first few days of its adult life caring for the queen and young ants.
Ants communicate by touching each other with antennae. They also use chemical signals to leave a trail of scent for other ants to follow. It is called pheromones. They can smell very well with their antennae. Since most ants live on the ground, they use the surface of the solid to leave smell trail for other ants to follow.
The ant which find the food will make a trail on the way back to the colony, this trail is followed by other ants and these ants will then strengthen the trail when they head back with food to the colony. When the food runs out, no new trails are marked by returning ants and the smell trail will slowly disappear. When the ants’ smell trail is blocked by an obstacle, the ants will leave the path and explore new path. If an ant managed to find the best path, it will leave a new smell trail making the shortest route on its return. This successful best path will be followed by more ants.
Apart for using pheromones to build a smell trail, the ants also emit an “alarm pheromone” when they are crushed. When this alarm is set off, ants near the crushed ants will into a attack frenzy and attracts more ants from further away. Some ant species even use “propaganda pheromone” to confuse their enemy ants and make them fight among themselves. Isn’t that an excellent fighting strategic? Some ants do produce sounds by rubbing together certain body parts to communicate with other ants in the colony or with other ant species.
Try to step on ants. they will bite. Ants attack and defend themselves by biting and some will even sting. For example, bullet ants in Central and South America have the most painful sting compared to any other insects although its sting will not usually kill you. The sting of Jack Jumper ants can be fatal but there is a treatment for it. A fire ants’ stings can be painful and it is dangerous for those who are hypersensitive. Trap-jaw ants have their jaws trap on you. The jaws will snap very shut faster than any other animals. That is why they are called trap-jaw ants. Studies have shown that the peak speeds of between 126 and 230km/h, with the jaws closing within 130 microseconds on average. They also used their jaws as a catapult to eject their enemies or fling themselves backwards to escape.
A Malaysian ant species which act like “kamikaze ants’ will defend itself by suicide tactics. When they are threatened, the worker ants will emit chemicals that will immobilise the enemy. Sadly, the worker ant will die later. Brazilian ants will also use the same suicidal tactics to protect their nests.
Apart from defending their nests from predators, the ants also keep their nests clean. Some worker ants’ job is to maintain the cleanliness of their nests. They have to get rid off their dead fellow members from the nests. Dead ants may be bring diseases that will harm them. They also protect their nests from flooding and over-heating. For example, an ant spices called Cataulacus Muticus which lives in plant hollows will drink up the water inside the flooding nest and then excreting it outside the nest. The mangrove ant which build their nests in the cavities of the mangrove forests will stop breathing air and start breathing on chemicals found in the water when there is a flood in their nests. These ants do really have brilliant survival skills.
Ants learn by interactive teaching. For example, a species of small ant called Temnothorax Albipennis will pick up one naive worker ant and lead it to a newly discovered food source, The newly recruited naive ant will be taught by the teacher ant. The teacher ant will monitor the progress of the student ant closely. The worker ants may also change their role based on their productivity. The group of ants which are able to hunt affectively will continue to do so. On the other hand, another groups of ants which are not able to collect a sufficient amount of food will hunt less and less. Finally, they will even change their vocation and end up taking care of the larva instead of hunting. So, you can actually conclude that the ants do really have good management skills too.
Ants move from one place to another place. So, they do build permanent nest. Ants build underground nest or build them on trees. Their nests can e found in the ground, under stone or logs, inside logs, hollow stems or even acorns. The ants use soil and plant materials to build their home. Temnothorax albipennis ants will avoid places which has dead ants because dead ants brings diseases and pests.
The army ants of South America and the driver ants of Africa do not build permanent nests. They will build temporary nest from their own bodies by holding each other together. What a unique way of building a home? Weaver ant workers build nests in trees by weaving the leaves together with silk produce by their larvae.
Most ants are predators, scavengers and indirect herbivores, but a few have special ways of getting their food. For example, the leafcutter ants eat fungus which grow only within their colonies. Honeypot ants will store their food to prevent a famine in their colonies.
Ants will travel up to 200 metres from their nest looking for food. They usually will still find their way back using their smell trail. Some ants look for food at night. Ants which look for food in the day time at hot and arid regions should have the capability of finding the shortest route back to their nests so that they will not die because of the heat. For example, the Sahara desert ant is able to keep track of the direction and distance when they travel out from nest looking for food.
Worker ants do not have wings. Most queens and male ants have wings. Queen’s shed the wings after having babies, leaving just a visible stubs as her distinct features. However there are some ants species which you can find that their queens and males do not have wings. Unlike the wasps, most ants walk. Some species are able to leap. For example, Jerdon’s jumping ant is able to jump. For example, Cephalotes atratus ant can glide. Most tree living ants are able to glide. These ants have the ability to control their falling direction so that they will be hurt.
Other species of ants can form chains to bridge gaps over water, underground or through spaces in plants. Some species can even form floating rafts that help them to stay afloat during floods. It is through the building of their floating ants’ rafts that the ants manage to conquer some islands. Mangrove ants like the ones found in Australia mangrove swamps can swim and live in underwater nests. Since they do not have gills, they breathe in trapped pockets of air in the submerged nests. Ants are really resourceful little creatures.
Ants eat many animals like termites, tropical wasps, stingless bess and even certain fungi. Bulldog ants are lone ranger Each bulldog ant prefers to hunt alone, using their large eyes instead of the smell trait to find their prey. Amazon ants are not able to feed themselves. They need to capture worker ants to help them to look for food. Therefore they are also called slave-raiding ants.
Ants identify its own species through their scent. If an ant is separated from its colony for a while, it will eventually loose the colony scent. So, the ant should not go out wandering for a long time. The ants need to have the right colony scent to enter into the colony without being attacked by his fellow ants. They basically need to have the right body odour to be acceptable by their mate.
Parasitic ants enter the colonies of host ants and make themselves the boss at home. They are social parasites. Ants which belong to the strumigenys xenos species are entirely parasitic and they do not have worker ants. They rely entirely on the host to feed them. They are just lazy ants. They are closely related to its host. They use the smell trait to confuse the host ants or to trick them into carrying their parasitic queen into their nest. Some just simply fight their way into the host nest.
Ants played an important role in reducing the pest population and they also help to circulate the air in the soil. For example, in Southern China, weaver ants are used in citrus farming. However, ants can also be a pest because they can invade buildings. In Africa and South America, large ants especially army ants are used to hold up wounded tissue. The ants grips the edges of the wound with its jaws lock shut on it. Then the ants’ body is then cut off and the head and jaws are remain in place to close the wound. What an interesting method to close a wound.
In South Africa, ants are used to help harvest rooibos which are small seeds used to male herbal tea. The plant disperses its seeds widely. Therefore it is hard to collect al the widely disperse seeds. The black ants will then collect and store these seeds in their nest and the farmers will gather them from the nest. They are able to collect up to 200g of seeds from one ant heap.
Believe it or not, ants and their larvae are eaten in different parts of the world. The Mexican eats the ant’s eggs. They are not cheap stuff. It is considered a form of insect caviar. They can sell for as much as USD90 per kg because they are seasonal and it is hard to find the eggs.
In some parts of India, Myanmar and Thailand people make the green weaver ant paste to eat with the curry. Weaver ants’ eggs, larvae and ants can be used to make Thai salad.
Some ant species are considered pest unfortunately because it is impossible to get rid off the whole colony. The ants which are classified as pest are yellow crazy ant, sugar ant, pharaoh ant, house ant and red fire ant. These ants’ population are controlled using insecticide baits. This bait is taken back to the nest as food and the poison will spread throughout the other ants. Nests of red fire ants can be destroyed by locating the ants’ trail back to the nest and then pouring boiling water into it to kill their queen. The percentage of success is about 60% of the mounds and you will need about 14 litres per mound. That is a lot.