Journey to the Land of the Ants Monday August 27, 2012
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Journey to the Land of the Ants

Ants as Ecosystem Engineers

I know it’s hard to believe that ants are significant creatures, especially when they march across your kitchen counter, but they really are important to the environment (as in outside!).   Ants are like mini engineers, constructing tunnels that aerate the soil.  They recycle dead plants and animals, enrich the soil with the food they bring down into the tunnels, spread seeds, and are a major source of food for lizards and other animals, not to mention, ants are exterminators of termites.

The ants go marching one by one, hurray, hurray!
The ants go marching one by one, hurrah! hurrah!…

Remember ant farming as a kid?

Ant Mounds & Ant Colonies

Below the Earths surface is a land of tunnels and caverns where ants live, eat, breed, and work.  Much like we do above ground but with ants, no one in particular is in charge.  Worker females surround the long-living queen, providing daily protection, meals, and babysitting for the new brood.   Males unfortunately, have the same fate as the drone bee (Definition of the word drone:  Old English drons, parasites who live on the labor of others) then the drone ant mates with the queen and …  ok, moving on

Ant mound in Ohio
Large Ant mound Adams Lake State Park, Ohio

Large mounds like the ones located in Ohio contain many queens, all laying eggs within the same mound.  Occasionally, one queen may leave the colony with a few of the workers and start a new mound of her own.  The tunnels may extend three feet deep and over six feet from the edges, just under the earths surface.  Nursery workers rely on sunlight to keep the chambers warm for the eggs and larvae.  They spend their days moving eggs around, following the warmth of the sun, to keep the eggs at just the right temperature.

Ant Tunnel

Drawing of an ant tunnel; ants are beneficial outdoors to aerate the soil.

Behavior in the Colony

Ants are social creatures, working for the good of the colony.  Each ant communicates by smelling another ant (kissing) or tapping and stroking the body to determine what must be done next.  If there is danger, some ants communicate with sound by squeaking or rapping their heads on a hard surface.  But not all is harmony inside the colony!  Selfish behavior over reproductive rights is common.  Female  workers possessing ovaries often compete with and try to dethrone the queen by inserting eggs of their own into the communal nursery.  These ovary carrying ants will fight for dominance, even in the presence of the queen.

Two Queen Fire Ants
Queen Fire Ant

Your Majesty The Queen of Ants

The queen begins her life as a high-class, self-reliant socialite but when she reaches adulthood, the queen is reduced to a helpless, egg-laying machine.  She follows her workers as they move from room to room, begging them for food.  Despite the queens dependence on her devoted servants, she usually lives for five or more years.   Workers only live about 5 weeks; maybe that’s why they try to become egg-laying queens — in order to live a longer life!  Some queen ants have human servants (Entomologists) catering to them as well.  The oldest queen in captivity was lovingly tended for years by a Swiss Entomologist; this particular royal queen lived a total of 29 years!

Australian Green Weaver Ant
Australian Green Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina)

Australian Green Weaver Ants

Not all ants form colonies underground.  For instance, the Australian Green Ant builds a nest from leaves by weaving them together with a silky substance produced by larvae.  Green worker ants carry larvae from a current nest to the new construction site.  They squeeze the larvae with their mandibles to obtain the silk necessary for constructing a new nest.  The amount of cooperation it takes between workers to weave a nest  (the size of a persons head!),  and bend enormous leaves in unison is incredible!  The Green Queen will lay her eggs on a leaf and protect her larvae until they become mature workers.

Australian Green Ants
Australian green weaver ants building a nest.

Busy as — an Ant

Such ant communities, whether under or above ground, prepare for the morrow with uncanny organization.  All for the greater good and survival of the species.  We could do well to emulate these miniature engineers and their industrious manners.  I will leave you with the words of Henry David Thoreau, It is not enough to be busy.  So are the ants.  The question is:  What are we busy about? hmmmm…

Seed-harvester ant
California Seed-Harvesting Ant

Article and Art by Donna Walker; each photo is credited with the source and/or photographer within the image.

Journey to the Land of the Ants References

Editors of Time Life Books, (1977). The Insects. Time-Life Books Inc., Alexandria, Virginia.

Holldobler, B., & Wilson, E., (1995). Journey to the Ants. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wikipedias Weaver Ants
New World Encyclopedia – Ants

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