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A Safari into the Ant World

Though small, ants are fascinating creatures to study. Read on to know more about them.

Ants are some of the smallest creatures on our planet. However, they often live in huge colonies having a highly organised social structure that is similar to human society.

What is an ant?

Ants belong to the class of animals called insects. Like all insects, ants have a head, thorax, and abdomen. Ants, along with bees, wasps, and termites belong to a group called the eusocial insects. Eusocial insects live in organised colonies and nests. Individual members of these colonies play different roles that are important for the well-being and smooth functioning of the entire colony.

How many types of ants are there?

Ants are a diverse group of insects. There are more than 12, 000 species of ants.

Where are ants found?

Ants are found all over the world and occupy most areas of land. They are more common in tropical regions.

How long do ants live?

Ants live for an average of 45-60 days.

Why do ants bite us?

Many ants are often equipped with powerful mandibles (jaws) that can inflict a painful bite. Others have the ability to sting and inject chemicals such as formic acid. Ants use these means of defence to protect their colonies against threat. The Bullet ant from South America is believed to have the most painful sting amongst insects.

What do ants eat?

Depending on their species, ants may be carnivorous, i.e. preying on insects and other small animals, or herbivorous, i.e. living on seeds, leaves, fruits, and other vegetable matter. Some are scavengers and feed on dead or decaying matter.

However, some ants have specialised feeding habits. They 'rear' or 'farm' their own food! For instance, certain ants live on a sugary substance called 'honeydew' that is produced by aphids (small insects that live on plant sap). To ensure a constant supply of honeydew, these ants rear aphids, just the way we rear cows for milk. The ants look after their aphid 'herds', tending to their needs, and protecting them from danger. They 'milk' the aphids using their antennas to make them secrete the honeydew. Another species, the Leaf Cutter ants cultivate fungus inside their nest, on pieces of chewed leaves.

How do ants communicate?

Have you ever seen how a row of ants gathers over a small crumb of sugar? This is because the ant that finds it, soon informs other ants in its colony about the discovery. How do ants do it? Ants communicate with each other using a chemical called a pheromone. An ant, who finds any source of food, lets other ants know about it by leaving a pheromone on the way back to its nest. Other ants then follow this trail and soon find their way to the food.

What are ant colonies like?

Many ants live in huge colonies that may be said to resemble human cities. A big colony may have thousands of ants living together. These colonies have a highly organised social structure comprising of the queen, who is cared for by loyal workers.

Many ants routinely attack and conquer colonies of other ant species. When one colony of ants conquers another, the ants belonging to the victorious side may steal the eggs and larvae of the other colony to eat, or bring them up as slaves. They may also capture adult worker ants and make them work as slaves.

How do ants reproduce?

The ants we are see around us are generally worker ants, which cannot reproduce. Only the queen ants can reproduce. They are much bigger than the workers and, in the initial part of their lives, have wings.

Usually around summer, winged queen ants, along with the males who also have wings, fly out from their nest. After they mate, the male usually dies, while the queen ant looks for a nesting site. Once she finds it, she builds a tunnel leading to a small chamber and seals herself in it. She then loses her wings, as she will never need to use them again. She lays eggs and waits for them to hatch. During this time, she neither eats nor drinks.

The eggs soon hatch into worker ants that begin to gather food and feed the starving queen. The workers devote themselves to the care of the queen and the future offspring. They single-mindedly fulfil their individual roles of gathering food, caring for the young, and defending the nest.

As the queen continues to lay more eggs, the colony grows bigger. Finally, once the colony becomes well established, the queen lays eggs that will hatch into the winged males and winged queens. When they fly out from the nest, the queen ants will mate and set out to start colonies of their own.

Ants and man

While we generally consider them to be pests, ants also play a useful role for man. They help farmers by aerating the soil and controlling agricultural pests. Ants are also eaten by humans in many parts of the world. Many people are fascinated by ants and study them. The study of ants is called myrmecology.

Do you consider ants to be pests? Are you fascinated by ants? Do you think that their colonies are similar to human societies? To share your views and opinions, click here.

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