Ants - Social Insects Facts about ants, one of most complex social insects

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ANTS – Social Insects with Complex Structures – By Tasaddaq Nazir

Fast Facts:

Kingdom: Animalia          Phylum: Arthropoda      Conservation Status: Least Concern

Class: Insecta                     Order: Hymenoptera     Predators: Insects, Echidna, Anteater

Family: Formicidae          Common Name: Ant      Size (L):2mm – 25mm (0.08in – 1in)

Found: Worldwide           Diet: Omnivore                Scientific Name: Formicidae

Skin Type: Shell          Favorite Food:Leaves Average Lifespan: 3 months

Number of Species: 12,000                           Habitat: Soil and cavities in wood

Colour: Brown, Black, Red                             Special Features: Social insects

Average Litter Size: 1,000

Main Prey: Leaves, Fungi, Insects

Ants are social insects of the family Formicidae. It is believed that ants have developed from wasp like creatures 100 million years ago. Ants make up 1/10 of the total world animal tissue. They can lift up to 50 times, and can pull more than 30 times its own body weight. Some species of ants do not and some sleep seven hours in a day. They are skinny insects and have two stomachs. One for their own use and other to store food. They cannot eat leaves because it is difficult to digest cellulose.

There are different types of ants including the driver ant, honeypot ant, army ants, weaver ant and bulldog ant. Army Ants are nomadic. They do not make their homes and journey is their hobby.  There are more than 22,000 different species all around the world. They are smartest species of insects with about 250,000 brain cells but live very short an average life span of 45-60 days.

There is a variety of colors including red, black, brown, yellow, green or metallic blue. Normally ants are wingless insect. Only queen has wings which she shed out when start a new Nest. Male of some species also have wings for a short time. Their sizes are also variable start from 0.75 to 52 millimeters. The largest specie yet known is Titanomyrma giganteum. The queen of which was 6 centimeters long with a wingspan of 15 centimeters. Now the largest ant is the Queen ant of the African Driver (Army) Ant in a genus Dorylus which is 4 centimeters long. The smallest ant is in the genus Carebara. Size is less than 1 millimeter. Even it is difficult to see with the naked eye.

There are three types of ants in a colony: the queen, the female workers, and males. Fertilized eggs produce female ants which include queens, workers or soldiers. Unfertilized eggs produce male ants.

The Queens are larger in size. They have a bigger thorax than the workers and this is due to the wing muscles of the queen. The abdomen is also larger due to egg producing organs. The queen is very important for a survival of colony. It is impossible for colony survival without the Queen. After a mate she spends her whole life in laying egg. Male ants are normally the smallest. They only mate with queen. They live no more than few weeks. The female are the worker ants. They do daily tasks of the colony such as foraging, brood care, nest repair, defense, and taking care of the queen.  They builds the nest and supplies the food to the colony. Worker ants also keep nest clean and tidy. They dump rubbish outside their nests. They leaves a trail of scent to good food sources which other ants can follow. They also keep the eggs and larvae in different groups according to ages. At night they move the eggs and larvae deep into the nest to protect them from the cold. To keep them warm during day time they move eggs to the top of the nest. Workers only live for about 45-60 days. Some ant species have soldiers. Their job is to protect the nest. They have huge head and powerful jaws to attack.

Ants have a hive mind. Ant brains are largest amongst insects. An ant brain has about 250 000 brain cells. Ants have different body parts.

Legs: Ants have six legs. Each leg has three joints. There are two sharp claws at the end of each leg. Claws help the ant to dig tunnels and climb walls without falling. Ants have a brush at the end of front legs to clean themselves.

Head: The head is made up of the jaws, the eyes, and the antennae. They have strong jaws and can tunnel through concrete and brick. The jaws open and shut sideways.

Thorax: All of the ant’s legs are attached to this middle body section.

Abdomen: Contains the intestines, a poison gland and two stomachs. One stomach holds the food for itself and second stomach for storage.

Antennae/Feelers: Ants have elbowed antennae. The antennae are special organs used by the ant to smell, touch, taste, and hear. Some ants have formic acid on their antennas.

Mandible/Jaw: An ant uses its mandibles to carry objects and can also use them as a weapon during a fight. Many ants have stingers that contain poison. The Bullet Ant have world’s most power full sting. It measures a 4+ on the Schmidt sting pain index.

Eyes: Some ants are blind, however other have good sight. Ant have two compound eyes. Blind ants use sense of smell and touch to navigate.

Exoskeleton: Like all insects, ants have exoskeleton which protects them.

Tiny holes present all over the body are used for breathing. These Holes are used for inhalation and exhalation of Oxygen and Carbon dioxide. They do not need lungs. An ant’s heart is like a long tube that pumps colourless blood from head to the abdomen.      Adult ants unable to chew and swallow solid food. They squeeze the juice from food and remaining solid part is useless for them.

Ants do not have auditory canals to hear. They “hear” by feeling vibrations in the ground. Special sensors on their feet and on their knees help ants interpret signals from their surroundings. They also use their antennae and the hairs on their body to feel around while foraging for food. Ants use their antennae for both smelling and touching. The ant has an excellent sense of smell. Ants can bite and some have stings. Ants with no stings can spray Formic Acid for defense.

The living place of ants is known as nest. They work together and make very complex nests. Nests style vary among species. Some build simple mounds of dirt or sand. Wood ants make anthills out of leaves and soil. Some use small sticks mixed with dirt and sand to make stronger, waterproof mounds. Some live in fallen trees. Most ants build a tunnels under their mound. Mound consist of chambers. Chambers are used as nurseries for eggs and young ants, for storing food. Worker ants also take rest in these chambers. Some chambers are booked for queen.

Army ants are nomadic they do not believe on making homes. They carry their eggs and larvae with them and move from place to place. They attack on other insects for food. During night workers join their bodies and make temporary nest. When queen lays egg, army ants take rest until they hatch.

There are four life stages in ant’s life cycle: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The larva hatches from the egg. During the pupa stage the larva is in a sleep-like state, as it changes into an adult ant. The entire life cycle usually lasts from 6 to 10 weeks.


Ant eggs are oval shaped and tiny. They are 1 mm long, but the queen’s egg is many times larger.


The worm-like larvae have no eyes and no legs; they eat food regurgitated by adult ants.


After reaching a certain size, the larva spins a silk-like cocoon around itself (against a solid object, like the wall of the chamber) and pupates.


The pupa emerges as an adult.

Ants are ecological helpers, because they add nutrients back into the soil. And finally, being predators, they will eat many of the real pests that plague us, such as garden aphids and scale insects. Ants perform important tasks in the ecosystems where they live. Some birds put ants in their feathers because the ants squirt formic acid which gets rid of the parasites.Ants loose the soil when they travel. Which help plants to grow better.

Leafcutter ants cultivate a bacteria with antibiotic properties to keep unwanted fungi from growing in their nests. Ant plants are plants have naturally occurring hollows where ants take shelter or feed. These cavities may be hollow thorns and stems. The ants defend the plant from herbivorous mammals, insects and parasitic plants that attempt to grow on the host plant.

Ants and aphids have deep relationship of mutualism. Ants feed on the sugary honeydew left behind by aphids. In return, the ants protect the aphids from predators and parasites.  Honey ants are very serious about aphid care. To keep the sweet stuff in close supply, some ants will herd aphids, carrying the soft-bodied pests from plant to plant. When the host plant is out of nutrients, the ants carry their aphids to a new food source.

If predators like ladybugs and lady beetles attack continuously, honey ants follow them and destroy their eggs. Ants like sugary honeydews, this is very useful for some leafhoppers. They leave their young in the care of ants. Some ants store aphid egg in their nests during winter. When population increases winged aphids fly to new location. Ants use different techniques and it is observed that they use chemicals to stop developing wings and ability to walk away. Ants massage their aphids and take honeydews. Some ants are more advanced and herd caterpillars like human beings. They led caterpillars to fed during day time, at night bring back into nest. Massage and honeydews.

Agriculture in ants is more complex and old than human beings. More than 2oo species are known as fungus growing ants. It’s amazing that ants grow fungus which is difficult for human beings. They use different techniques and chemical for this purpose. They secrete chemicals to avoid harmful and extra fungus. They use complex tunnel system to control the humidity and temperature for crop growth. They grow fungus because they are unable to digest leafs. Agricultural techniques even transfer from one specie to other.

Ants touch each other with antennas for communication. They sweep their antennae over each other to identify one another. If their scents are unfamiliar, the workers will either run away or go on the attack.

Ants from the same nest smell alike. They also use chemicals called pheromones to leave a trail of scent for other ants to follow. When ant colonies are moving or when they have found a source of food, ants leave a scent trail for other ants to follow. When a scout ant has found a good source for food, it leaves a trail of scent so that the other ants in the colony can find the food. By following pheromone trails created by other ants from the colony, foraging ants can gather and store food efficiently.

Concept of slavery is also present among ants. The Slave-Maker Ant (Polyergus Rufescens) raids the nests of other ants and steals their pupae. When these new ants hatch, they work as slaves within the colony. Many species of ants are known to raid neighboring colonies and steal eggs or larvae. Thief ants raid neighbor colonies, stealing food and even young.       

Ants are omnivorous animals and therefore eat a mixture of both plant and animal matter. Feeding habits vary in the ant family. Most ants prey on small insects or scavenge bits of dead organisms. Many also feed on nectar or honeydew, the sweet substance left behind by aphids. Some ant’s species have a more herbivorous diet, where other species of ant mainly eat meat. Ants consume many kinds of food. They eat worms, beetles, bees, termites, caterpillars and other insects. They also drink the juices from many plants. There are ants in Africa and tropical parts of Asia that are capable of killing and consuming anything in their path.

Ants have many enemies. Due to their abundance and small size, ants have numerous animals that prey on them from tiny insects to reptiles, mammals and fish, and even certain species of plant have also developed ways in which they can digest them. Ants are near the bottom of the food chain and have many predators. Some animals that eat ants are lizards, birds, frogs, spiders and anteaters.  Many ants are killed by pesticides of humans.

Ants are vicious, merciless survival machines. They breed special castes of large, powerful soldiers. Along with soldiers, worker will fight for the survival of the colony, not giving a though for personal safety or survival. Some ants even use chemical weapons in war. When ants fight, there is no surrender, no mercy, and no peace. They kill all the enemies and eat their babies. If it is necessary to the survival of the colony, ants will eat their own babies.

Ants are specialized insect in every field of life. Pavement and argentine ants are very aggressive in battles. They left hundreds of dead bodies every day. Bullet ants inject a strong nerve toxin when they sting. Ants are the greatest insect killer on Earth.

During flood season some ants combine themselves into a water-tight ball, connecting together with all their strength. The column floats safe till the ball of ants finds dry land again. Their survival is problem for other insect survival. To complete their food needs, they attack on each and every thing.

Ants adapt their environment very quickly. They adjust themselves when moved to a different climate or location. Some ant species can survive under water. Ants are resistant to hard radiation, and some ant species are highly resistant to industrial pollution. Ants modify their environment. They regulate the temperature and humidity within their nests. They control airflow through their nests.

Ants have graveyards. When ant is close to death, it gives a special smell (oleic acid). Other ants pick it up and carry to graveyard. Scientists dropped some on a living ant, and against its will it was carried to the graveyard. The interesting thing is that the ant was clearly alive. To ants, if you smell dead, you are dead. Ants nest is a very complex and populated due to which bacteria is very harmful for them. To avoid bacterial threat they remove dead ants quickly.

There is a species of fungus that infects ants and takes control of their bodies. The fungus finds its way underneath the ant’s exoskeleton and begins to consume soft tissue. Shortly after, by unknown mechanisms, it causes the ant to leave its colony. The ant then finds a leaf, bites it with a “death grip,” and dies. A few days later, the fungus releases spores to infect more ants. Some ant species have learned to recognize infected colony mates and will carry them far away to protect the rest of the colony.


LIVESTOCK FARMING:                   Herd aphids and “milk” them for nectar-like food

CULTIVATION:                                   Growing underground gardens for food

CHILDCARE:                                        Feeding young and providing intensive nursery care

EDUCATION:                                      Teaching younger ants the tricks of the trade

CLIMATE CONTROL:                        Maintaining a strict 77o F. for developing ants

CAREER SPECIALIZATION:             Changing & learning new careers

CIVIC DUTIES:                                    Responding with massive group projects

ARMED FORCES:                               Raising an army of specialized soldier ants

SECURITY:                                           Warding off other ants, insects and animals

EARTH MOVERS:                              Move at least as much soil as earthworms

SOCIAL PLANNING:                         Maintain ratio of workers, soldiers and reproductive


ENGINEERING:                                  Tunnel from two directions and meet exactly midway

COMMUNICATIONS:                      Complex tactile and chemical communication system

FLOOD CONTROL:                            Incorporate water traps to keep out rain

SANITATION:                                     Some ants process waste material so that it safely decomposes

LIMITED FREE WILL:                        Inter-relationships more symbiotic than coercive