The Ants Go Marching...In Almost Every Environment!
Ants are a type of insect. There are about 20,000 different speciesof ants. Ants can be found in every environment except where the ground is permanently frozen. Ants live in special groups calledcolonies in which all members work together.
An Insect with a History
A worker ant is born to do one job its entire life. This leafcutter worker uses its powerful mandibles to cut leaf pieces for the colony.©M.Moffett/GLOBIO.org
Ants have been on Earth for millions of years. A fossil of an ant 92 million years old was found in New Jersey in the United States. The fossil shows that ants were around when the dinosaurs roamed Earth!
Where Ants Fit In
Ants are small, but they play a critical role in the health of the environments in which they live. For example, they pollinate flowers while searching for sweet nectar and pollen. A few species of ants even “milk” a sweet liquid from other insects.
They Really Clean Up
Ants have been called the janitors of the world because they do a lot of clean-up jobs! With their strong jaw-like mandibles, ants can cut up just about anything and haul it back to their colony. They can make a meal out of dead leaves or dead insects. They even cart away small birds and mammals after they die. The remains of a dead African zebra - after lions have finished feeding on it - will feed thousands of ants.
A Short but Busy Life
Worker weaver ants act together to care for the larvae and pupae of their colony.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org
Each ant passes through four distinct life stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Ants grow up in just a few days. Ants live a very busy, but short, life. The average ant lives 45-60 days.
Amazing Ant Anatomy
Ants have three main body parts: the head, the thorax (middle section), and the abdomen (rear section). The outside of an ant’s body is covered with a hard armor, which is called the exoskeleton.
Click on the photo below to discover how an ant’s body works.
Groups of ants live in a social group called a colony. Some colonies are extremely large, with millions of individual ants. Ants spend most of their lives inside the colony.
The Queen and Her Crew
After dropping her wings, a new queen begins to dig a nest and start a new ant colony.©C.Ziegler/GLOBIO.org
Colonies are home to three different kinds of ant family members. Each colony has a queen. A queen is a large female ant who spends her life laying eggs. There also are a few males with wings called drones. There are thousands of workers, all of whom are female. Workers are very busy and active. Usually, worker ants are the only kind of ant you’ll see outside the colony.
One Colony, Many Jobs
There are many different kinds of workers in each colony. These different worker types are divided into castes. Castes differ from each other in the way they look and the jobs they do. For example, worker ants from different castes have different head sizes. They also have different kinds of mandibles that are adapted to perform a specific job that supports the colony. Some of the jobs include gathering food, defending the colony, and taking care of the eggs, larvae, and pupae.
Food Fit for an Ant
Ants eat different things, depending on the stage of their life and their role in the colony. Small larvae, for example, are fed a mushy liquid food by older worker ants. Full-grown workers may feed directly on the food they find outside the colony. They also bring food back to the colony. Smaller ants chop up the food and process it into a liquid for others to eat.
Some workers do not eat after they become adults. Their mandibles are only designed for other duties, not for eating. The queen gets the royal treatment. Workers feed her a special liquid from their mouths.
Ants at a Glance
Next time you see some ants, take a moment to watch them work. See if you can identify some of these species.
Leafcutter ants are amazing in the way they cut leaves, buildcompost piles, and farm their own food. They are found in the tropical forests of Central and South America.
Harvester ants live in temperate North America. Most of the species are found west of the Mississippi River in the United States. The two most common species are the Texas harvester ant and the Western (red) harvester ant.
Army ants are active and aggressive. They move their colonies regularly in search of prey. They are found in the tropical forests of Central and South America.
Weaver ants are reddish insects found in the tropical forests of Africa and India and south to Australia and the Solomon Islands.
Ants and People
Ants and people have an unusual relationship. Interestingly, we have many traits in common with ants. We both work hard, live in colonies or communities for the good of all, and play a strong role in shaping our environment. In some places, people eat ants. Ants serve as an important source of protein for them.
Ants Keep the Soil Healthy
The worker members of an ant colony are divided into castes. Each caste has a special job and the mandibles to go with it. Notice the difference in mandible size between the different castes of workers shown here.©G.Ellis/GLOBIO.org