Ants are everywhere. These insects are in your home, under a rock, boring through a tree. They are truly remarkable insects. Each colony can have thousands of individual insects. But if the colony is made up of so many individuals, how do ants work together? The ant colony is considered a super organism. This colony is so united toward the common purposes of survival, growth, and reproduction that they behave like a single organism, or a “super organism.”
In the same way that an organism has many parts, each with their own purpose, the colony also has parts with individual purpose. The ability for multiple individual colony members to work together to perform extraordinary feats sets ants apart from other insects. Its these social behaviors that give ant colonies a major advantage over other organisms that don’t work together as a single unit.
WHAT ARE THE “PARTS” OF AN ANT COLONY?
Ant colonies are really just large families. And all families have their patriarchs. Ants actually have a matriarch, their queen. The queen is responsible for producing all the eggs required to keep the population up. I a queen’s prime, she can produce hundreds, even thousands of eggs per day. Her sterile female offspring make up the workers in the colony. They forage and feed the colony. The brood are the larvae and pupae that will become the next generation of workers. Finally, a few of the ants will be male and female reproductives, produced in order to create another colony.
All these different ants work to maintain the colony and its young. And as each ant goes through is egg, larvae, pupae and adult stages, the colony will also go through stages. This is called the colony life cycle. It starts with the reproductive male and female mating. Then the growth stage will produce many workers to enlarge the colony. Finally, in the reproductive stage, the colony will produce new reproductives to create new colonies.
COOPERATION AND COMMUNICATION
Ants colonies work much like a factory. There is division of labor in order to accomplish multiple tasks. The queen lays eggs, the workers provide food, and larvae and pupae replenish the populations. The workers themselves will separate their roles based on many things. Younger workers tend to work feeding the queen and her young, while older workers tend to leave the nest in search of food and defend the colony. Workers seem to get to choose their roles based on personal preference, environment and other workers.
Ants are very good communicators. But these insects don’t use sound to transmit ideas, they use chemicals. These chemicals are known as pheromones and these are how ants work together. Ants use their antennae to sense these pheromones, and each pheromone represents a different situation. There’s a pheromone for “Danger, we’re being attacked!”, and one for “I’ve found food!”, etc.
For example, lets say that two ants have found the same food source. One ant will come directly back to the nest, while the other will take a longer route. They both will secrete pheromone to denote the path to the food for the other ants. Two more ants will follow the two pheromone paths, also leaving pheromones along the way. The ant following the shorter path will get back before the other ant. This will leave the shorter path with the stronger pheromones of two ants, while the pheromones on the longer path will be starting to wane. The pheromones on the shorter path will get stronger and stronger as more ants follow it, and soon it will become the only path that the ants take.
FARMING AND HUNTING
Food resources vary for these little creatures. Ants will eat a wide variety of things, and some ants are very carnivorous. A single ant is small and easily defeated by most of the insect in the animal kingdom, but in the great numbers that colonies provide, mass attacks can be deadly. They will group up and attack much larger prey very successfully. Some species of ants have poisonous stings or bites, making them very formidable.
Other ants are more peaceful. Take the leaf cutter ant. These little insects are the vegans of the ant kingdom. They remove pieces of leaf, often much larger than themselves, and bring them back to their nest. Then they use these leaves to grow fungi that will feed the colony. Still other ants will act like ranchers. They herd plant sucking insects like livestock and feed on their sweet leftovers. Such agriculture is a group effort in ants and humans alike.
WORLD WAR… ANTS?
Ants are very protective of their colony. They can be very territorial. And if another colony gets too close to their nest, they will go to war. Many people think that humans are their biggest enemy. This is simply not true. When two colonies go to war, often they will go until only one colony is left standing. Competition for territory, and especially food sources is fierce.