Ants: More than picnic pest

  • It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 species of ants worldwide. Courtesy of Roman Grac

Take Me Outside
Published: 7/8/2019 1:12:12 PM

Summer is a time for gardening, hiking, picnicking and lots of outdoor fun.

It’s likely that you’ll have some six-legged companions that join you for these activities because summer is also insect season. But like everything in nature, there is something good about them. Let’s consider ants because they are far more than uninvited picnic guests.

It’s estimated that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 species of ants worldwide, living in a huge variety of habitats and conditions. Related to bees and wasps they are in the insect order Hymenoptera, or “membrane-winged.” Their three body parts include a large head, a thorax and an abdomen separated by a narrow waist. Like the familiar honey bee, most ants live in large social colonies with a division of labor made up of different castes.

The large queen ant is the producer of eggs. Her eggs are tended by workers, the sterile females. These sisters care for the eggs, the larvae and the pupae, by moving them around the nest, foraging for food outside of the nest, cleaning and eliminating waste from the nest, defending the nest from intruders, basically everything to ensure the survival of the colony.

There is one thing workers can’t do, which is fertilized future queens. Some of the pupae hatch out as fertile and winged males and females. These emerge from the nest and perform a “nuptial flight” where mating takes place. After mating, the males die. Fertilized females become the queens of future colonies, dispersing to new nest areas where they shed their wings, lay eggs and tend the young, which will become the workers of the next generation. Queens only mate once and store sperm within their bodies that will fertilize their eggs for the rest of their lives. This could be many decades depending on the species of ant.

Ant nests can be found in various places, and the site and substance can be distinguishing features for determining the species. Most people are familiar with ant hills, a small (or large) mound of dirt protruding from the ground. The pile is made from the excavated spaces underground but also helps with the temperature control of the nest. Being higher than the ground around it, the nest mound catches more sunlight and therefore can heat up the interior of the nest by as much as 20 degrees. This enhances the development of the young within the nest.

Other nests can be found under a rock or log. You may have seen one if you’ve lifted a rock and witnessed the chaotic flurry of activity as the workers try to escape or protect the nest from the giant who has ripped off their roof. The next time you encounter this scenario, observe the different elements of the colony. Are all the ants the same size? Some colonies have identical workers while others have sisters of different sizes. Look for the shiny oblong larvae and the white parchment-like cocoons of the pupae. Perhaps some of those are being carried by the black or brown adult ants.

Ants can lift and carry something that is three times its own weight. I bet you can’t do that!

At other times, ants can be seen carrying seeds as they contribute to seed dispersal. Various wildflower seeds such as trillium and hepatica have a fatty covering that ants are attracted to. They gather the seeds, bring them underground, eat the fatty substance and leave the exposed seed neatly planted in the soil.

Other beneficial services provided by ants include pollination. Though not as fuzzy as their bee cousins, they can transfer pollen from flower to flower as they search for their food of nectar, fungus or other insects. As omnivores, they may help control other insect pests and naturally, they are good at aerating the soil.

Of course, some species, like carpenter ants, can cause damage and none of us enjoy having the little “sugar ants” crawling on our kitchen counter. But most ants are harmless and watching an ant comb its antennae or groom one of its sisters might help you develop a bit of appreciation for these tiny creatures who have lived in highly organized, cooperative societies for at least 50 million years.




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