Ants are among the most successful of insects, outnumbering all other individual animals combined. They have been around since the days of the dinosaurs and inhabit just about every corner of Earth.
Ants live in colonies made up almost entirely of non-mating female workers whose job is to gather food, build the nest, and look after the egg-laying queen and her young. At certain times, winged males and females are produced by the queen for the purpose of mating with ants from other colonies. After mating, the male ants die, and the mated queens fly off, shed their wings, and start new colonies.
The Benefits of Ants
Although some species, like the carpenter ant and the stinging fire ant, are considered pests, generally ants are beneficial. Most ants nest in the ground, digging a labyrinth of tunnels that allow air and moisture to get to the roots of plants. The leaves and insects brought into the nest decay and fertilize the surrounding plants. Many ants are predators and feed on insects that attack lawns and gardens, and in the process of gathering food, they often pollinate flowers and distribute seeds.
What Ants Indicate
A sudden convergence of ants in the garden, or a line of ants moving up and down a tree, usually indicates the presence of aphids, mealybugs, or other sap-sucking insects that attack plants. These insects produce a substance called honeydew:
- The ants stroke the insects with their antennas, causing the insects to excrete the sweet liquid.
- The ants swallow it and store it in a special holding stomach called the crop.
- The honeydew is brought back to the nest and shared with the queen and other workers.
- Some ants even keep aphids in their nest as a farmer would keep a cow, giving them food and shelter in exchange for honeydew.
Did you know?
In some cultures, ants are considered delicacies. The honey-pot ants that live in our southwestern deserts gather large amounts of nectar and store it in the swollen bodies of specialized worker ants called repletes. Native Americans have snacked on these sweet ants for centuries, making them possibly the first ones ever brought to a picnic on purpose.