As insects go, the success of ants is pretty impressive and they are possibly the most successful insects when it comes to distribution. With the exception of Antarctica, the Artic and a couple of islands, ants have spread to just about every piece of land on earth and have literally conquered the globe.
Scientists in the field of insects have estimated that there are at least 1.5 million ants on the planet for every human being. Now that’s success. Over 12,000 species of the ant are currently known to exist and many live in tropical regions. To put their true numbers into perspective one single acre of Amazon rainforest is likely to house a colony of 3.5 million ants.
Ants generally live in colonies of huge numbers but not all ants build nests. Some ants are literally homeless. There are 200 known species, often referred to as army ants, who have two phases in their life – nomad and stationary. During the nomad phase, ants are on the move all day, targeting other ant colonies for food. At night the nomad ants will build a temporary nest but will continue travelling during daylight. When the time comes for the Queen of the colony to lay her eggs, the ants will cease travelling and enter a stationary phase as the ants wait for the eggs to hatch. During this time, ants use their own bodies to make a nest around the Queen, to protect her, their food and her eggs.
Ants know how to bargain. Ants will shelter within plants and shrubbery and in exchange for that shelter the ants will defend and shield the very plant they are hiding within. They will guard it from other insects or herbivorous mammals and will even prune away any parasitic weeds that may be attempting to grow on their host plant. In other words, ants will use their host plant to their own advantage by protecting it as they use it.
Ants have also learned that being social really does pay off. They divide jobs within the colony amongst all the different ants so that each ant knows specifically what it’s doing. All the ants working within a colony are female. The male ants do not work – they are literally redundant and are only required to mate with the Queen of the colony. The Queen does not work either as her only job is to lay eggs.
In fact ants are so clever that one species has even found a way to reproduce without the need for the male ant at all. Researches in the field of insects discovered that a species of ant found in Central America has the ability to reproduce sexually so that all the ant offspring are clones of the Queen herself.
We cannot underestimate the success of the ant. Their huge distribution globally is only rivaled by that of humans. Whilst some ants live in natural crevices and openings in small numbers, the average ant colony contains thousands. There are also super colonies which can be found around the world including the USA, Australia and Southern Europe containing more than 300 million individual ants.
Next time you see a trail of ants in your kitchen spare a few seconds to marvel at the success of this humble insect.