Go to the Ant…

Did You Know…?

  • … that ants are one of more than a million insects that have been catalogued and studied. Approximately 5000 species of ants have been identified, and more are being added yearly.
  • … that the population of a single colony of ants may number in the millions—and they are all the offspring of one mother!
  • … that ants can tolerate a wide range of living conditions, and they are found on all land surfaces except those permanently frozen (the Arctic, Antarctic and the highest mountain peaks).
  • … that ants make an important contribution to conditioning the soil in areas where they live, bringing up tiny particles of earth as they dig their tunnels.
  • … that certain ants are skilled insect farmers, tending a herd of aphids which they “ milk” to gather the sweet liquid which the aphids secrete.
  • … that one species of ants known as Parasol ants are fungus farmers. They snip off rounded pieces of green leaves, then with their feelers carry them above their heads like parasols.
  • … that fossils of ants have been found preserved in resin called “Baltic amber” believed to be millions of years old, yet they look exactly like the ants we see today! Also, fossils of ants in ancient rocks are no different than those in existence today.
  • … that some ants are thieves and robbers. They get into the nests of other ants, kill the ant queen and take over the nest.
  • … that army ants are feared in some foreign countries because they do not settle down in a colony but travel about in a herd, carrying their queen with them and preying on anything that gets in their way, even to killing small game.

“Go to the ant.…, consider her ways and be wise,” wrote the wise Solomon, “which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest” (Prov. 6:6-8).

These words of King Solomon were said to be one of the “puzzles of the last century” because scientists had no evidence that ants actually store food. But late in the 19th century, a British naturalist, making a study of ants in Europe, showed that Solomon was right after all. He discovered what are known as harvester ants that gather grain in the harvest for use during the dry season when food is not available. Not only do they gather grain and store it, but should some of the grain sprout, they remove it from the mound to a place where it can take root and grow then harvest any seeds it produces.

Ants are just one of more than a million different species of insects that have been studied and cataloged. They are among the most numerous of terrestrial creatures, with more than 5000 related species and the number of individuals within the different species is incalculable. Brown, yellow, reddish or black, they range in size from those only one millimeter in length to carpenter ants that average nearly one inch. Carpenter ants do not live underground, nor do they eat wood although they live in rotten wood, either in a dead tree or the timbers of an old building where they excavate passageways and galleries to make a home for themselves. Ants are not short-lived like bees. Some worker ants have been known to live seven or eight years, and queen ants as long as fifteen years.

Carpenter Ant

Every ant colony begins with a queen. As with bees, the queen ant is much larger than her workers. After mating she chooses a site for her nest, sometimes under a rock for a start, and immediately begins laying eggs. She feeds and cares for her first offspring alone, producing a few workers who immediately go to work. As the colony grows, they eventually tunnel in the earth to a depth of as much as 20 feet. Using their feet and their strong jaws, ants mine tunnels and chambers and carry the soil to the surface, usually dropping it near the entrance where it forms a mound we call an anthill. After workers are produced, the queen does nothing but lay eggs to perpetuate the colony. A single colony of ants has been known to attain a population of more than a million individuals—all the offspring of one mother.

an ant queen

Like all insects, the ant’s body is divided into three distinct sections, which are connected by flexible joints. The head contains the insect’s eyes, feeding apparatus and feelers, or antennae, which are sensory organs needed to make contact with its world and each other.

The thorax, or center section, is the locomotion center which operates its six legs, while the rear section houses the respiratory system, digestive and other organs. Ants can eat only liquids, hence they chew seeds and grains and ingest the liquid. Because they live mostly underground in the dark, they have little need for vision, depending upon their feelers to guide them. When outside, their eyesight is limited to about two feet, but they compensate for it by their antennae in which is located a keen sense of smell and touch. And they have a strong instinct to recognize others of their own clan. When one ant meets another they exchange strokes of their feelers to know if they are of the same colony, and if they are they pass a drop of fluid to one another.

In some instances ants have shown an amazing ability to outsmart humans. In South America, ants were found to be climbing coffee trees and chewing on the coffee beans. Men tending the trees placed sticky ant repellent bands around the trees, but within an hour the ants had discovered alternate routes up tall grass blades that reached overhanging branches of nearby trees, thence establishing a new route to the forbidden coffee trees.

An anthill is a busy place. Solomon had observed the ways of the ant, and pointed to their industry in contrast to the lazy or indolent behavior of the human race. Their only overseer is another ant, yet they are ever working. Every kind of ant known in the world is a social creature. They never live alone. They establish communities so beautifully regulated and operated that it has been said that man’s by comparison seem blundering. If an anthill is partially destroyed, and many of the ants killed, the survivors immediately set to work mining and rebuilding their home. There are many different species of ants, but all are noted for their industry in providing and caring for their own.

Leaf-cutter Ants

Among the ants are “engineers” who construct elaborate tunnels and carry out complicated building operations within the anthill, and guards who keep enemy ants out of the colony. Also there are ants that are “agriculturists” that carefully clear the ground of all but certain grasses to prepare the area where they store their seeds or grains. There are “soldier” ants that are larger and stronger, with especially strong jaws that crush seeds for feeding the young. The workers carry on the housekeeping for the clan. There are workers whose sole job is to care for the queen, who is literally an egg-laying machine. Other workers tend the larvae until they hatch into workers. Unlike the bees, ants do not encase the eggs in cells, but simply leave them lying on the floor, or stacked in a corner of the nest. Thus they have what we would call “low overhead.” The energy that would be spent building cells is diverted to more profitable uses, and should conditions become unfavorable the ants can move out, carrying their young with them to a new location.

So called Tailor ants are able to “sew” their nests. To begin the job, a group of them pulls two leaves together until their edges touch, then the ants use fine silk strings to sew the leaves together.

Army ants are bridge-builders. When a group of them come to a span they cannot cross, some of the ants link their legs together forming a type of ant-link chain across the chasm, which the other ants use to literally walk across.

Probably the most fascinating and most industrious of the ants are the Parasol ants, so called because they may be seen in parade form, each one carrying above his head a big piece of a green leaf. These ants are farmers in the ant kingdom. They carry these leaves into their underground tunnels where they use them to make compost on which they sow spores for growing different kinds of fungus. These little farmers sow, weed, harvest and eat, and sow again to provide for themselves and the colony.

Do we wonder that the wise Solomon wrote, “Go to the ant, … consider her ways and be wise”?

Scientific Data in this Article is From:

  • All About Ants by M.W. Larson
  • The Insects by Peter Farb & the editors of LIFE