When combined, all ants in the world would weigh about as much as all human beings. Considering the discrepancy in size, that is saying a lot. Their population in total is figured to be ten thousand trillion and their diversity is staggering.
Ecologically speaking, ants change their landscape by collecting 90 percent of dead insect bodies as fodder for their nests. They transport seeds and are responsible for dispersal of large numbers of plants. They push the decomposition of rotting trees and decaying logs; move more soil than earthworms and help to circulate vital nutrients across the land.
Ants act like six-legged kamikazes. They are the chief predators of insects and spiders.
They have compound eyes with hundreds of lenses, but they have poor eyesight. The many lenses just allow them to detect movement.
Ants can give and receive messages through antennae and touching each other.
Ants can suck liquids from plants then move them. Ant larvae do eat solid food, so worker ants bring it back for them, feeding each other intimately mouth-to-mouth.
Ants control, change and adapt their environment by means of mass action, swarm and division of labor.
Ants also employ slavery and slave-making—dulosis—almost like the capture and domestication of dogs and cattle by humans.
The number of behavior activities from grooming, egg care, laying odor trails and more numbers from 20 to 42 accomplishments across species.
Like all insects, the outside of their body is covered with a hard armor called an exoskeleton.
About their amazing ability to carry things: the ant neck joint is complex, a highly integrated machine-like system.
To simulate their carry ability, researchers ran lab experiments using 3-D models. They found that, surprisingly, the ant’s simulated neck joints could withstand about 5,000 times the ant’s body weight. In addition, they found that an ant’s neck-joint structure, when its head is aligned straight as opposed to turned, has the most strength.
The antennae of ants are typically jointed in the middle. They might resemble termites at first glance, but ants have a narrow “waist” between the abdomen and thorax, which termites do not. Ants also have large heads, elbowed antennae and powerful jaws.
Worker ants use their jaws for many tasks including defense, nest building and caring for larvae. For combat, it’s all about the jaws. They grip one another in a mandible-to-mandible hold, pulling, strangling and cutting off the limbs of opponents. Like wire clippers, their jaws are snipping off heads, legs and other body parts of enemy insects.
A majority of ant species communicate by sound. They produce a high-pitched squeak by rubbing a thin, diagonal scraper located on their waist against a washboard of fine, parallel ridges on the adjacent surface of the abdomen. Entomologists call this behavior stridulation. The signal is barely audible to a human, and only if the ant is agitated and calling vigorously.
The main way ants communicate is through sense of smell. An ant’s antennae help it smell chemicals called pheromones. The ant’s body makes this type of hormone internally and it is released into the air or on the ground.
For example, during territorial defense a weaver ant lays an odor trail from the tip of her abdomen as a means of guiding nest mates to the enemy. Each colony of ants has its own scent. When the other ants show up, she performs a “dance” by raising her abdomen, opening her mandibles and jerking her body back and forth.
Biologists have long realized that ants can also hear with their knees, picking up vibrations humming through leaves or nests or even the ground.
There are more than 1,000 kinds of carpenter ants alone and they live in large colonies. The colony starts when a female ant mates, midair, with a male swarmer. The female loses her wings, the male dies and she becomes queen and sets up housekeeping when she is ready to lay eggs. The colony starts small but can contain 3,000 ants within three years.
Carpenter ants make their home out of dying tree elements. Eventually, they live in the wood and chew through it but do not eat timber, as a termite would do. Very destructive, they can be found chewing tunnels into wood buildings, which weakens the structure.
These industrious woodworkers keep nests orderly and clean by pushing out sawdust, dirt and other dead bugs into tiny piles of matter called frass. The best way to spot any activity inside and out is to see the piles of detritus. When nests are bothered, ants may bite and spray a chemical called formic acid that can be very painful.
Army ants find and eat dead bodies called carrion. They are nature’s way of thinning for the fittest, in that they kill weak, sick and old animals as well as the dead. Teamwork allows army ant colonies to attack and kill animals much larger then themselves for food.
There are over 300 different kinds and most live underground in mainly female colonies. The queen may be as big as an adult human’s thumb with millions of workers at her disposal. They live in a well-defined caste system. With extra-large mandibles to their credit, the soldiers among them, called major ants, defend against beetles, lizards, birds and other predators. Soldiers cannot carry anything, so porters carry food and the submajors, who possess extra-long legs, carry the food beneath their body. Minor workers carry eggs and larvae when the colony moves and picks up leftover bits of food and any dead workers.
Chemicals in Ants
Ants’ highly organized social life is tied to their biology. Chemical signals, including pheromones, are an integral part of this sociobiology. They all live in groups, some species with only a few individuals and others in colonies of half a million or more members. Ants communicate mainly through touch and chemical means, although there are some species where vibratory and even auditory processes have been observed. It is also interesting that some species navigate using the direction and plane of polarized light.
African Weaver Ants
Since they often live off ground high in lowland forests, they know how to design rooms out of large spaces using leaves. The weaver ants are aptly named because they weave small branches and leaves together so their rooms have walls, a floor and a roof. Many thousands will bend down broad leaves and glue them together with a white papery substance.
When they need more crew, some of the workers return from the site of activity but not before leaving a trail the others can follow. They lay odiferous substances over leaves, twigs and even the bodies of other ants forming a chain.
Deadly Fire Ants
The venom-packed stings of just 12 fire ants can kill a three-inch-long fence lizard in a minute. Deadly fire ants have been known to strip animals as large as calves down to the bone.
Fire ants were accidentally introduced to the U.S. from South America in the 1930s, possibly via shipping ports in Alabama. Without a method for controlling the population, scientists believe fire ants, which have no natural predators in the United States will eventually colonize more than 50 percent of Earth’s land surface.
The reddish-brown venomous insects have been known to short-circuit appliances, damage traffic lights, sting people and threaten endangered bird and reptile species (although some lizards seem to be adapting for protection).
We have only begun to touch upon the world of ants, and there is a lot left to discover.
- Holldobler, Bert and Edward O. Wilson. Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific exploration. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994. Book.
- Aronin, Miriam. The Ant’s Nest: A Huge, Underground City. New York: Bearport Publishing Co., 2010. Book.
- Ponka, Katherine. Carpenter Ants: Animals of Mass Destruction. New York: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2015. Book.
- Markle, Sandra. Army Ants Animal Scavengers. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 2005. Book.