All About Ants (almost)


Among the many hundreds of thousands of astonishing organisms with which we must
share this earth, there is one seemingly ordinary group of specimens which
fascinates many people beyond all others. There is nothing too extraordinary in
the proportions or appearance of ants, but it is their history and culture that
induces a second look. These insects are about as different from us mammals as
two organisms can be, yet it appears that of all the known animals their way of
life appears closest to our human way of life. The similarities in the ways in
which we organize our lives are astounding. Ants are doubtlessly the most
successful of all the social insects of the Hymenoptera, an order also including
wasps and bees.

The earliest known specimens are found entombed in the Scandinavian Baltic Amber
samples which scientists date in upwards of 100 million years old (The Ant
Colony Ś89). These primitive samples have evolved into the 5000 to 10000
species known today which vary amongst themselves as widely as the numbers
suggest (Social Insects Ś68). These remarkably adaptive creatures are found in
some form on all continents and all habitats but the extreme arctics. Their
success is manifested in the claim that at any time there are at least 1
quadrillion living ants on earth(Groliers Ś93).

All species of ants are social. They live in organized communities or colonies,
which may contain anywhere from a few hundred to more than 20 million
individuals. These are organized into a complex system which may contain two or
more castes and sub castes which can be roughly organized into three groups.
Queens, males and workers.

The queen is much larger than the other ants, and has wings until mating. Her
primary task is to lay eggs for the colony. Some colonies have one queen;
others have up to 5000. Queens develop from fertilized ordinary eggs, nobody
is exactly certain what causes these to develop into queens but it is generally
thought that the process comes from an altered diet in the pupae and larvae
stages and as a pheremone response, which will later be discussed. Queens have
an extended life span of up to 25 years and can lay millions of eggs in that
time (Ant Colony Ś89).

Male ants are winged as well, their sole purpose is to mate with the queens.
For this reason they are the shortest lived ants in the colony. Hatching in the
spring, they mate in the summer and upon completion of this task promptly die.
As in all Hymenoptera, they are formed from non-fertilized eggs (Social Insects Ś
65).

The majority of the ants in the colony are wingless females who are generally
non-reproductive. These "workers" must perform the tasks of sustaining the
colony and all life therein. They are responsible for building, repairing, and
defending the nest, and for caring for the queen and the brood. They also
generate a source of nutrition and feed all the members of the colony. Some
will will perform a single task for their whole lives, while others change
constantly.

In polymorphic species, where the workers vary in size, the worker sub casts
are most destinguishable. Here there is found a larger or major worker often
referred to as a soldier. Her function is often associated with specialization
such as guarding the colony, carrying heavy loads, or in species where necessary,
foraging for food. While the minima or smaller workers tend the larvae and
queen.

Once or twice each year, commonly on a warm summer day, every ant colony becomes
the source of great excitement. Well rested and cared for young alates begin to
make for the escapes and exits from deep within the colony. Large soldiers
guard the door as the young winged members are escorted to the open by hordes of
workers. Suddenly, yet unbeknownst to man nature gives a signal. Soldiers
retreat, and workers make space and assemble on the ground as the males and
queens are hustled to the sky. Hastening into the air they often meet with
winged\'s from other colonies with the same objective. For the first and only
time in their lives they will mate, often in mid-air or settling on leaves and
branches. Now the queen is equipped with a lifetime supply of sperm. After a
brief hour or two of this nuptual flight they return to the ground. Males
having accomplished their duty die, while the queens task has only begun. She
will return to her original colony, inhabit another established colony or form
her own.

Not all queens will survive this lonely dangerous task. Her first objective