Is there a group of animals that can conjure up the creepy crawlies and visions of ruined picnics like the ant? For most, only one experience with an overlooked ant pile can quickly create a negative impression for a lifetime. However, if we do like an ant and dig a little deeper, we can discover a million reasons these small but mighty creatures fascinate people worldwide.
The Gallivant Ant
Myrmecology is the study of ants and is a vast branch of entomology, the study of insects. All insects are classified by three main body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen), six legs, and two antennae. In Order Hymenoptera along with wasps, bees, and termites, ants are found on every continent except Antarctica. There are over 10,000 species of ants worldwide and some scientists estimate there may be as many as 14,000 species! Many live in tropical rain forests, but Texas boasts close to 300 species by itself.
What's the Difference?
You probably won't have trouble finding ants in your yard, but identifying them from the termite (above right photo) might be a little more difficult. If you look closely though, you'll be able to see the difference. Ants have hinged antennae and a cinched waist similar to a wasp, whereas termites have straight antennae and little distinction between thorax and abdomen.
Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Similar to the termite and many other Hymenoptera species, ants live in complex societies known as colonies. Colonies can be found almost anywhere - under rocks, in trees, leaf litter, mounds, the ground, and unfortunately sometimes in your own home. Over a million ants can live in a single colony, but together they all function as one organism with the same purpose. This structure is considered a “superorganism.” Just as each body part of an ant functions to meet the needs of the ant, individual ants will do their part to meet the needs of the entire colony. Each ant's priority is the colony; to protect it, provide for it, and expand it. Ants think, hunt, fight, and solve problems together all while they work in different capacities within their society.
What part each ant plays is determined by its status and will fall into one of three castes: male, queen, or worker. Once adults, males live for about two weeks. Their sole responsibility is to mate with the queen and after they finish their job, they die. After the mating swarm, the queen rips off her wings (ouch!) and begins her job - laying eggs. Some queens can live for decades and lay hundreds of thousands of eggs in their lifetimes! That’s a lot of children, so who takes care of them?
Queens spend all their time laying eggs, so it's the worker ant team that moves in to provide for the new members of the family. All workers are female, and this workforce makes up the bulk of the colony’s numbers. That gives a whole new meaning to girl power! From egg to adult, the workers care for and protect the young, and even decide which of their siblings will be queens! The workers feed the larvae and the amount of nutrients received during the larval stage determines who will be a queen and who will be a worker. After the larvae metamorphose into pupae, they soon develop into adult ants.
Once adults, the workers split up all the other jobs of the colony. Worker responsibilities include tending to the young or the queen, foraging for food, and protecting the nest. In essence, the worker ants in a colony are the care-takers, farmers, and warriors. The tasks the workers take on depend on necessity, age, and preference, although the younger workers usually care for the larvae. As workers mature, they take on some of the other job responsibilities in the colony.
In order to keep track of everyone, each individual has to communicate well with her family members. Ever wondered how ants talk to each other? Ants have touch and smell sensory in their antennae, which they use to communicate with others in their colony. They touch one another on the antennae and produce special scents through pheromones which communicate different messages like where to find food or possible threats. Every colony even has its own unique scent so workers can distinguish one another. This helps them identify who is friend and who is foe - some ant species will go into all-out war with other colonies to protect their own. Be careful not to get caught in the middle of that battle!
On top of being fearless warriors, native ants are valuable to their ecosystems and provide important environmental benefits. While nesting, ant colonies move and aerate soil better than earthworms, which is essential for plant growth. They can also carry heavy loads, moving objects up to 50x their body weight. One type of ant, the harvester ant, even has beard-like hairs that form a basket shape which they use to carry sand and seeds. Not only that, ants can walk up to 300 meters per hour at a rate of 800 times their body length – that’s a lot of opportunity to move seeds around!
Ant colonies are also great clean-up crews. Many species are omnivorous or carnivorous, and will feast on dead animals that would otherwise create a literal stench. They are some of Earth’s most efficient predators and consume about 10 million insects per year. How’s that for pest control?
Unfortunately for most species in our area, ants have erroneously earned the title of “pest” due to one type of ant - the invasive red imported fire ant. Characterized by its aggressiveness and painful sting, the fire ant is probably the most well-known species in Texas and as such gives all ants a bad name. In truth though, most native species of ants are beneficial and many can’t even sting. Native species can also help keep fire ant numbers at bay, limiting their numbers and range. So before getting rid of all the ants in your yard, it might be worth it to learn what species are there – they could end up being the best tenants you could ask for!
References and Resources
- Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project, fireant.tamu.edu/materials/fact-sheets/.
- Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project, fireant.tamu.edu/learn/native-ants/.
- “Ants Are Ecologically Beneficial.” Ants Are Ecologically Beneficial | Horticulture and Home Pest News, hortnews.extension.iastate.edu/ants-are-ecologically-beneficial.
- “Ants and Termites: How to Tell the Difference.” Ants and Termites: How to Tell the Difference | University of Maryland Extension, extension.umd.edu/resource/ants-and-termites-how-tell-difference.
- “Ants: National Geographic.” Animals, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/ants.
- Brown, Wizzie. Ants: Identification & Management, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Watershed/growgreen/2015LPT/Ants-Identification-and-Management-Brown.pdf.
- Fiegl, Amanda. “The Hidden World of Ants.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 July 2009, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-hidden-world-of-ants-29730137/.
- “Identifying Household Ants.” Insects in the City, 31 Oct. 2018, citybugs.tamu.edu/factsheets/household/ants-house/ent-2013/.
- “K-State Research and Extension.” Ants in the Classroom, www.shawnee.k-state.edu/schoolenrichment/school-enrichment/ants/Ants in the Classroom.html.
- Kazilek. “Ant Factoids.” Kazilek, 22 Sept. 2009, askabiologist.asu.edu/content/ant-factoids.
- Kazilek. “Individual Life Cycle of Ants.” Kazilek, 17 Dec. 2009, askabiologist.asu.edu/individual-life-cycle.
- Kazilek. “Secrets of a Superorganism.” Kazilek, 27 Sept. 2009, askabiologist.asu.edu/explore/secrets-superorganism.
- Kness, Andrew. “Ant Influences on Pollination and Some Other Plant Services.” Maryland Agronomy News, 25 Aug. 2020, blog.umd.edu/agronomynews/2020/08/25/ant-influences-on-pollination-and-some-other-plant-services/.