April 2010 Archives

I am interested in setting up a formicarium. What are the best methods for setting up sustainable and easily viewable formicaria? And what North American ant species tend to lend themselves for use in an amateur formicarium? (John, Leeds, UK moving to US soon)


John, thank you very much for this question. Many people are interested in keeping ants in a formicarium (plural is formicaria, but many people just call them 'ant farms'), and they are really cool, but there are some things you need to consider.

- Types of ant farms
- Ant food and water
- Moisture
- Cleaning up
- Which ant species to keep?
- How to handle your ants
- Overwintering
- Concluding remarks

Types of ant farms
Formicaria are available on the internet or from some pet shops, but you can also build one yourself. There are quite a few different types ranging from slim ant farms to simple jars which we will discuss here. You can make any type of nest more elaborate by connecting several containers with plastic tubes (clear) by cutting a whole in the container and attaching the plastic tubes using a glue gun.

The slim ant farm with dirt
The majority of ant species in temperate regions nest in the ground. When you are keeping these ants, it is a most natural habitat if you provide your ants with some dirt. In order for you to be able to see the ants, you would want an ant farm made from glass or acrylic plastic. Slim containers also make it more likely that you will see the ants, but you have to be aware that they will likely try to tunnel away from the glass. To encourage the ants to tunnel near the glass, you can cover it up with aluminum foil when you are not watching them. It is really important that the container is well sealed and your ants don't escape and find themselves a new nest somewhere in your apartment. Unless you are a skilled do-it-yourselfer, you may want to buy an ant farm from a store, because they can be quite tricky to make. You should definitely check out some websites on the net to give you some ideas. Here are some youtube videos providing step-by-step instructions for a great ant farm using old CD cases (video 1 and video 2). Also a simple way to construct a glass ant farm can be found here. Once you have the container, you want to fill it with a sand/soil mixture that stays loose and does not become hard or compact. You have to make sure that the substrate is kept moist, but not wet, in order for the ants not to dry out, but also not to drown. So before you fill your ant farm with the substrate, make sure that the substrate is moist. Slightly spray it with water and mix it. Sand and soil in equal amounts is a good mixture, but sift the dirt before you use it so it is loose. You can buy sand in aquarium shops and soil in flower supplies if you don't have anything suitable at home. There are some shops on the internet that sell ant farms filled with a blue gel. These types of ant farms are for short term keeping of ants because you cannot replace, refill or clean the blue gel, but these kinds of ant farms can be very fun and educational for children and adults alike.

Pogos slim.jpg

This is a glass ant farm that was constructed in the lab of Robert A. Johnson (Arizona State University, USA) and instructions can be found at this website.


An ant farm from a jar filled with dirt

Another way to make an ant farm with dirt is just to use a jar. You can take an old peanut butter jar (glass or plastic), clean it out really well and remove the stickers (soak it over night and use some soap). Fill this jar about half full with dirt, again you can use a mixture of sand and soil (sift the soil in any case) in equal amounts. For ventilation, you should cut a whole in the lid and cover it with mesh. You should not use a fabric net in this ant farm model, because the ants can bite through the net and escape. Attach the mesh using a glue gun. You should NOT use Fluon® (also called "Insect-a-Slip Insect Barrier ") to coat the top 3 inches of the inside walls to prevent the ants from climbing up, because it will get very messy with the dirt and then the ants can just walk on it. See section below on feeding ants.

A simple Tupperware model
Tupperware can be quite handy when you want to make an ant farm yourself. This model is often not so fancy to look at, but it fulfills the needs of many ant species.
- Buy a Tupperware container or any plastic box with lid.
- When you keep your ants in Tupperware, they often try to walk up the walls and escape. To prevent this you can use a liquid called Fluon® (also called "Insect-a-Slip Insect Barrier ") to coat the top 3 inches of the inside glass walls. Fluon® is slippery for the ants and prevents them from walking all the way up to the lid. Use a foam brush to apply it and move the brush up and down not sideways. Let the container sit upside down for at least 2 hours allowing the Fluon® to dry and then you can turn it over, but you should wait at least 24 hours before you place your ants in the container.
- For ventilation, you have to prepare the lid of the Tupperware container. Use a cardboard cutter (careful not to cut yourself and use a cutting board underneath!!) to remove a small square from the lid (1 by 1 inch, or 2.5 by 2.5 cm² works well). Even though you have used Fluon® some ants will still reach the lid for the container. Because of this use some very fine net (wedding veil works well) and cut a piece of 2 by 2 inch (5 by 5 cm²) and cover the open square with it using a glue gun. Make sure to apply the glue tightly from the inside so that the ants don't get caught between the net and the plastic. It is unlikely that the ants will actually reach the lid, because you are using Fluon®. So the danger of the ants biting through the net is not very high. Just make sure you watch the activity of your ants at least every other day.
- Once you have the container ready, the ants need a place to actually nest in and keep their eggs, larvae and pupae (referred to as brood). You can use a test tube or make a cavity with plaster.

CSM ant lab nestkl.jpg

This picture shows a Tupperware box with Fluon® coated walls as they are used in the Moreau lab at the Field Museum. Note the hole in the lid covered by a fine net that has been attached using a glue gun. Photo by C.S. Moreau.


The Tupperware model with test tube
You can use a test tube to provide a nest to your ants. Prepare the Tupperware box as described above and then:
- Take a test tube or some other kind of tube (glass or plastic) and fill it one third with water.
- Take some cotton, form it into a ball and push it inside the tube until it is damp and prevents the water from coming out when you place to tube horizontally. The inside front part of the tube should stay dry.
- Prepare some black paper shields or tin foil to cover the tube at the dry end. This way the ants have a dark nest. Prevent the tube from rolling around by pressing it into some modeling clay at the bottom of your container.

graph formicariumkl.PNG

This is a sketch of a simple Tupperware/plastic box ant farm with a test-tube as a nest for the ants (A). In part of the graph (B) you see how the test-tube is constructed. Image by D. Ballhorn.


The Tupperware model with plaster cavity

Another way of making an ant farm is using some kind of Tupperware or even a small aquarium and then making a cavity. Some additional models of this type of nest are found at this website.
- Buy some kind of plastic or glass container (a small aquarium is nice).
- Use some modeling clay and form it the way you want the cavity to look later.
- Prepare dental plaster and pour about 1-2 inch thick (2.5 - 3 cm) on the bottom. Let that dry for a few hours (about 6 hours should be sufficient).
- Then place your modeling clay on top of this bottom layer, prepare some more plaster and pour it around the modeling clay. Make sure to leave it open at the top, so you can get the modeling clay out again and access your ants later.
- Let the plaster dry for at least 24 hours, and then carefully take out the modeling clay.
- Now you have a nice cavity for your ants, but you can also decorate it making it look more natural (for example you can use natural pigments to color the dental plaster like the one shown below otherwise the plaster will be white).
- You can apply a very thin layer of glue to the plaster and take some dirt or fine sawdust and sprinkle it onto the glue layer. This will give your ant farm a more natural look than the white or grey from the plaster.
IMG_0527.jpg

This is an image of a harvester ant colony (genus Pogonomyrmex) in a nest made with dental plaster. This nest was designed by Ray Mendez in Arizona, USA. Photo retrieved from Ant Course yearbook 2009.


Keeping twig-nesting species in twigs
Some ant species, especially in warmer climates nest in dead and hollow twigs. To keep these species in a natural habitat you can just collect the twigs and keep them in a Tupperware/plastic container or aquarium with a tight fitting, sealing lid.
- Prepare a container with Fluon® and allow for ventilation as described above.
- When you have a large number of workers in the twigs, they like to expand. You can just take some bamboo twigs (about 0.5 inch or 1 cm in diameter) and cut them into 7 inch pieces, place them in the container and the ants may move in. They will excavate the twigs themselves. This is fun to watch and gives the ants something to do.
- You can take a slightly bigger glass container/aquarium and place your bamboo twigs in there. This is great to watch when you have several active workers.
Psal.JPG

Here is an aquarium in which a colony of the twig nesting Pseudomyrmex salvini was kept. Note the twigs that the colony was collected in at the bottom and new bamboo twigs in the aquarium. Food was offered in plastic weigh boats, but any container will do. A lid was constructed from acrylic plastic, but beware because the ants started to escape because the lid became deformed due to heat lamps on top of it and Fluon® was later applied to prevent the escaping of ants. Photo by S. Kautz.


Ant food and water
In nature, ants make use of many different food sources. Some species are very specialized and for these specialists (like the leaf-cutter ants) you will need to find the food they prefer. But the majority of species lives on a mixed diet of honeydew (which is basically sugar water enriched with some amino acids) and dead insects. We will outline how to satisfy generalists.
- It is important to keep your ant farm clean and not spill the food. This prevents the ants from getting stuck, for example in honey water, and you will have fewer problems with mold.
- For the generalist ants you should provide three different "dishes", one with diluted honey, one with dead insects and one with water. You can cut plastic or aluminum foil into discs of about the size of a plastic soda bottle lid.
- Preparing the diluted honey: Mix about half a cup of honey with half a cub of water. You can add a bit of a crushed mineral and vitamin tablet, but really only a bit. Keep this refrigerated. Use an eyedropper to place little drops onto the dishes. Don't make the drops too big: the ants might drown in it!
- Preparing the dead insects. You can buy crickets from pet shops. Freeze them and then take from the freezer as needed. If you have a small ant colony, about half a cricket every other day should be sufficient. Be sure to break open the insect when you put it in the container for your ants.
- Water should also be supplied on a little ant dish and in little drops, so the ants don't drown in it or you can wet a cotton ball and put it in the nest and the ant can drink from it.
- You can slice up an apple or a carrot and offer that to your ants occasionally. They might like it.
- Place the dishes on top of the substrate in a dirt nest and on the ground in the other kinds of nests.
- Watch how much food your ants actually need and prepare the ratios accordingly.
- It should be sufficient to feed your ants every other day and clean up your ant farm by removing dead bodies or spilled food.

Moisture
Moisture is very important for your ants. Since ants are so small, they can dry out very quickly and this will kill them. It is also important to avoid mold in your ant farm. So you really have to see how moist your ant farm is and then regulate it accordingly. Here are some general tips:
- When you are using a dirt nest the dirt should be moist, but not wet. Use a spray bottle to provide some moisture if it gets too low.
- When you are using a plaster nest, the plaster should be damp. Just pour a LITTLE water on it occasionally. Once you have mold, wipe it off using a paper towel. If the mold gets too bad, move your ants to a new nest. You can take out the plaster and re-use the box. Try to disturb your ants as little as possible when moving them!
- When you keep your ants in a test tube, water is provided. Just watch out that it does not get used up. But this happens only after quite some time!
- If you keep twig-nesting ants, occasionally spray them with water. This should be enough to keep their nests moist enough.

Cleaning up
Try to remove dead bodies (both dead ants and the prey you are providing), spilled food and mold as soon as you see it! Most ants will keep their nest cavity clean and remove dead bodies from it to a trash pile they create. But, it is your job to remove the dead bodies from the container! Use forceps (tweezers) to avoid disturbing your ants as much as possible. Also try to avoid taking out the live ants and especially the brood whenever possible. This might damage them and they could die a couple of days after you touch them.

Which ant species to keep?
It is a great idea to get species that are native to the area that you live in. This prevents the establishment of invasive species (see our post on Fire ant invasions). There are some online shops that sell tropical species, but these could become a threat to our native fauna (if there are queens present) and often they have been exported illegally. Never ship ants with queens across state or country lines. So it is a good idea to drive to the woods and look for some native ants. You may want to try to get an ant queen that has mated, because workers are not sustainable. Workers do not lay eggs and they only live about 1 year, but a nest of only workers can still be quite fun to keep. You can dig up an entire nest and try to get the queen with brood and workers that way. An alternative that I would recommend is that you wait until June-August (as soon as it is the right season) and try to get a founding queen after her mating flight (see our post on How can you tell if an ant is male or female?). At this time of year, usually there are many queens that have been swarming and walk on the ground in search of a suitable site for a new nest. When you see that you should collect several queens, but you have to keep them in separate containers, because they most likely will attack each other. Once you have the queens in their container, they will lay eggs and these will develop into worker ants if she has mated. Keep in mind that native ants are a very important part of their ecosystems, and destroying a larger colony can have more of an impact on the surrounding community than you might imagine. This is another reason why it's good to start with a newly mated queen: their chances of survival, from the time they fly from their nest to their second or third year as the queen of a new colony, are very dangerous times and only a very small fraction will survive. By giving her a nice, safe formicarium to start her colony in, you might be saving her life!

All the most commonly encountered ants that live around people's houses are possible to keep in captivity, and the majority of these can be fed a generalist diet (discussed above). Here is a list with just some species native to temperate regions that can be kept in ant farms (far from complete!!!):
- Lasius species (ground nesters; native to temperate regions) Lasius niger is the most common garden ant in temperate Europe, and there are some very common species in North America, too.
- Camponotus species (often very big ants! ground nesters or nest in twigs; native to tropical and temperate regions), but these are carpenter ants so be sure to not let them escape in your home.
- Formica species (like to build mounts; native to temperate regions, rather big)
- Pogonomyrmex species (North America, harvester ants are native to arid regions, need seeds as food source and be CAREFUL!!! they have an awful sting. Check out this website for notes on Pogos in an ant farm
- Myrmecocystus species (honey pot ants, North America, arid regions)
- Messor species (harvester ants, need seeds as food source, native to temperate regions)
- Myrmica (native to temperate regions, rather small)
- Tetramorium
- Tapinoma
- Pheidole

How to handle your ants
You should try not to touch the ants for two reasons. First, they might sting you (depending on the species you have) and second, you might harm them. When you need to pick up individual ants, because one escaped from the ant farm, use feather weight forceps (these are tweezers that are very thin and flexible and will not squish an individual ant). You can also use an aspirator, but be very careful that you don't accidentally suck in an ant. That might end badly for both on you! Here is a suggestion for an online store that cells equipment for handling ants.

Overwintering
Depending on the species you have and the region you have the species from, you might want to keep the ants cool in the winter (in a basement or even in the fridge). This imitates the annual cycle so the queen might have improved egg production. You should start keeping the ants in a cold room when it gets cold outside. Don't immediately place them in the fridge, but try to cool the temperature down gradually if possible. An easy way to do that is to keep them near an open window starting in late October, for example (but be careful of direct sunlight on hot days!). Then, in late November, early December, move them to the fridge. Check them weekly for moisture and always offer some food. Then, get them out the fridge again in February and try to warm them up gradually again. Even when you have ants from temperate regions they will survive if you do not overwinter them, but the egg production of the queen will be reduced after 2-3 years. So if you only have workers, you don't need to overwinter them.

Concluding remarks
There are many different ways to keep ants and we did not include all of them. There are also many kinds of ants (see our post on How many kinds of ants are there) that can be kept and hobby ant farmers as well as experts have a lot of experience on keeping ants. There are many different forums out there that discuss such experiences. A nice list of useful websites and interesting forums for people interested in ants can be found here, here, and at many other sites on the internet.

Enjoy your formicarium!
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

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This is a great question and fits well with our post below on "What is the largest ant in the world?"

Leaf-cutter ants of the genus Atta are well known for cutting and carrying bits of leaf material back to their nest. They then chew this leaf material up into a fine paste to use as the substrate to grow their food - fungus! This is where they get their other common name, fungus-growing ants. Since fungus growing ants have been cultivating fungus for ~50 millions of years, this makes them the worlds first farmers.

Atta texana worker w_leaf.jpg

Worker of Atta texana carrying leaf material back to the nest. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).


In a leaf-cutter ant colony there are many sizes of individuals from minute workers to large soldiers to the giant queen herself. The queen of leaf-cutter colonies such as Atta cephalotes can be 22 mm in length. Not quite as long as the the African driver ants mentioned in the post below, but still very large.

Atta texana queen.jpg

Queen and workers of Atta texana on fungus garden. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).


Borgmeier, T. (1959) Revision der Gattung Atta Fabricius (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Studia Entomologica (N.S.) 2: 321-390.
Schultz, T.R. & Brady, S.G. (2008) Major evolutionary transitions in ant agriculture. PNAS 105: 5435-5440


- Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

I live in the Northern USA and wanted to know if Fire Ants will ever be a pest in my yard?


The Red Imported Fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, is an introduced pest in the United States from South America. There are also native fire ants (species of the genus Solenopsis) found in many parts of the world, including the United States. Although the Red Imported Fire ant is an introduced pest in many parts of the United States, Australia, and some islands, it is unlikely you will ever have the invasive Red Imported Fire ant in the northern US since they are not able to survive long winters with hard freezes. Red Imported Fire ants are considered "hot climate specialists". This means they are unlikely to survive in your North Dakota yard, but may still be able to survive in places with temperature controlled environments like greenhouses. This species has even made the list of "100 of the World's Worst invaders": http://www.issg.org/database/species/search.asp?st=100ss

Soleopsis_invicta_AlexWild.jpg
Solenopsis invicta - Red Imported Fire ant. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).


Where in the US are Red Imported Fire ants found?

The Red Imported Fire ant is thought to have been first introduced in the US in the late 1930's in the port of Mobile, Alabama. They are considered a serious problem due to many factors that include their ability to spread rather rapidly, their painful sting, aggressive behavior, and damage to some agricultural crops and livestock. In the United States fire ants have spread from Alabama across the southern US and into isolated areas of California, which has resulted in quarantines of movement of some products like soil and plants to help stop the spread of these invasive ants. Although we are not certain how much further north and west they will spread, we do know that they will not be able to survive outside in areas with long, cold winters.


Fire_Ant_Quarantine3.jpg
Distribution of Red Imported Fire ants in USA. Map from: http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/animals/rifa.shtml


Why are they called Fire ants?

Well if you have ever been stung by a Fire ant you can answer this question. Fire ants get their common name from the fact that when they sting you it feels as though you have been touched by a red-hot flame. These ants bite onto you (or other enemies, intruders or prey) with their jaws and then inject a dose of venom with the sting on the rear end of their body. Their sting is not only painful, but for some people this can be a real problem since it can result in anaphylactic shock or even death in very extreme cases. Also most people develop an itchy, puss filled bump after being stung.

Fire ant stings USDA.jpg

Fire ant stings. Photo from: http://www.ars.usda.gov/fireant/project.htm

How can I identify a Fire ant?

Telling fire ants apart from other ants can be difficult since they look like most ordinary red/brown ants, although AntWeb and a microscope will help. Two of the key signs are their behavior (they are very aggressive and sting readily) and mound-shaped nests. Each of these mounds can contain up to 300,000 individual ants.

Fire ant mound AlexWild.jpg

Fire ant mound. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).

Although this species is considered an invasive pest in some areas like the United States and Australia, it is important to keep in mind that they are not all bad. In their native range of South America it is one of many important ants in the ecosystem. For more information on the Red Imported Fire Ant, check out this webpage which contains many informative links:
http://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/animals/rifa.shtml

- Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Ryan, this is a good question. The answer is not that easy though. Different ant species can have different numbers of queens in their colonies. In the majority of ant species, a single female establishes a new colony on their own (only one queen). When we talk about ant colonies that have one queen we use the term "monogyny" (mono = single; gyn = female/queen), and when talking about ants with multiple queens we use the term "polygyny". Polygyny occurs when young queens get together in groups of young founding queens (primary polygyny). Still others return to the nest they were born into and join their mother and sisters in this already established colony to also lay eggs (secondary polygyny).

Also, a single queen can mate with one or more males before starting her colony. There are quite a variety of different colony structures that have been discovered in ants ranging from the "standard system" of one singly-mated queen per colony to colonies with multiple queens or queens that mated multiple times. A good overview of different colony structures can be found in Heinze (2008). In analogy to the terms monogyny and polygyny we refer to mating once as "monoandry" (mono = single; andr = male/mate) and mating several times as "polyandry". The queens of army ants and leaf-cutter ants show extreme cases of polyandry and mating with 20 males is not unusual for these ant species. Monoandry is often common in ant species that have multiple queens. So there seems to be a trade-off between queen number and matings per queen.

Sometimes the only way to know how many queens a species has in the nest is to dig up the entire colony to count them. With over 14,000 ant species there are many that have never had their nests studied, so for many species we still do not know how many queens are in a nest or how many times she has mated.

Heinze J (2008) The demise of the standard ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News 11:9-20

- Steffi Kautz & the AskAnt Team

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Well, Luke, there are many ways to answer that question. In virtually all ant colonies the queen is the largest member, and none are larger than those of the African driver ants in the genus Dorylus, measuring more than 4 cm long. Colonies of this species may include many millions of individuals, all of which are laid by one massive queen. Males of this genus are almost as long (~3 cm) and more robust than queens. Commonly known as "sausage flies" for their characteristically long and bloated abdomen, males disperse from their natal nest in search of other colonies, which drag the male into the nest to mate with virgin queens.


Several species may claim to have the largest workers, including the "dinosaur ants" in the genus Dinoponera from South America and Camponotus gigas of Southeast Asia, each measuring about 3 cm. Just slightly smaller than these two giants is the notorious bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) of Central and South America, so-called for its excruciating sting.

DinAus4.JPG

One of South America's largest ants, Dinoponera australis. Photo: Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com)

Perhaps the largest ant ever is the extinct Formicium giganteum from the Eocene (about 46 million years ago), whose queen measured 5.5 cm long with a 13 cm wingspan - larger than a ruby-throated hummingbird. By comparison, the smallest workers in the ant genus Carebara can be smaller than a pinhead (< 1 mm)!

- Tim O'Connor & the AntAsk team

Good evening,
I had accidentally spilled a drink on my laptop. I took it to "repair" but some keys remain slightly sticky. Recently my Macbook Pro was invaded by ants, and I figured they were after the remaining sugar residue. My bug-proof laptop is now riddled with bugs!

I was thinking I could use the ants to remove the remaining residue instead of squashing them. How quickly can they clean up sugar? Will they all leave once they are done, or will they try to make a nest in there (the laptop I am now typing on). These ants are pretty small so I think they can get under the keyboard keys. This is a much less expensive solution and doesn't require disassembly or very costly repairs.

Thanks!


Kurt: 

I personally do not think that this is a good idea, but it depends, like you suggested, on what the intentions of the ants are.  It is possible that they are just going for the sugar, in which case they will quickly lose interest when they've eaten it all.  The length of time it will take them to do this depends on a lot of different factors, like how many ants are involved and how dried up and difficult to eat the sugar is - I would guess somewhere from a few hours to a few days.   

Although many ants are very good at cleaning up sugar, some of them are also quite good at chewing through plastic. Many of the species of ants that are often found living around humans seem to have a strange affinity for setting up nests in electrical equipment, and damage to the wiring almost invariably follows.  Two species of ants leap to mind that seem particularly prone to this behavior: the Raspberry Crazy Ant, and Monomorium destructor.  M. destructor, as the name suggests, is especially good at chewing through things, including electrical insulation.  Neither of these ants has been reported from Maryland-- the Raspberry Crazy Ant is mostly known from Texas, and M. destructor also tends to live in warmer areas (athough specimens have been collected in Tennessee and New York State).  You might consider browsing the Ants of Pennsylvania page, (likely candidates for your ants are Monomorium pharaonis and Tapinoma sessile).  

Even so, without knowing exactly which species of ant is infesting your computer, I would advise you to discourage the ants as quickly as possible.  As much as I am interested in ants, I would be nervous if they started showing interest in my laptop!  

Nylanderia sphttp://urbanentomology.tamu.edu/ants/exotic_tx.cfm

Monomorium destructor 
http://www.issg.org/database/species/impact_info.asp?si=960&fr=1&sts=&lang=EN

- Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk team

Good question Claude. As I am sure you know, ants, like most insects, don't do very well in the cold. But ants are always around in the spring when the weather warms up, so how are they surviving the winter? In general, the temperature underground is quite a bit higher than the air temperature. Ants take advantage of this by moving deeper underground in the winter. Some ant nests can be over 15 feet (4.57 meters) below ground level. They can also stay warm by grouping close together and sharing body heat.And ants in places where it is too cold to gather food during the winter may store food in their colonies and fill their crops (an extension of the gut used to store food and water) so that they do not starve.

So generally, ants hibernate during the winter, moving deep underground, grouping together, and generally limiting activity to conserve energy. Ants that live in particularly cold climates, like Leptothorax canadensis from Québec, Canada, and New England, USA, produce their own biological antifreeze so that the water in their bodies does not freeze. These ants are sometimes exposed to temperatures below -20° C (-4° F) but are able to survive even long cold winters by combining all of these methods for staying warm.

- Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team

I'm doing a project for school, and I'm trying to find out how many different kinds of ants there are. I checked in a few different places, but I keep getting different numbers. What's the real number?
-Ruchika, Mumbai, India


That's a great question, Ruchika, and we're still trying to figure out the answer! Because scientists discover new ant species every year, the number of species is always going up. So far scientists have given formal scientific names to about 14,000 ant species and subspecies, but we know there are many, many more ants out there that have yet to be discovered and given formal scientific names. Since the AntWeb species database is closely maintained by some of the leading ant taxonomists (scientists who name and describe species), it is one of the best places to look for how many species are currently recognized.

There are two main places you can look on AntWeb to find the latest statistics on how many species there are: on the AntWeb homepage and on the AntWeb "The World Ants" page. As of April 2010, the number of species given is 14,095.

antwebstats.jpg

antworldstats.jpg

Although there have been over 14,000 formal scientific names given to ants, no one really knows exactly how many species of ants are alive today. New species, especially in tropical rain forests around the world, are discovered every year. Even in the United States there are new species of ants that have yet to be given formal names. As you look around AntWeb there is evidence for the existence of new species waiting to be described. Often, when you look at a regional list of ant species in the Bioregions pulldown on AntWeb, there are many entries with a genus and species name, but there are also entries with a genus name, and then some short code of letters and numbers, like Solenopsis nz01, or Adelomyrmex jtl007. The codes (usually taken from the taxonomist's initials, or an abbreviation for were the specimen was collected) sometimes mean that the curators of those regional lists think those specimens belong to a species new to science.

People often think that there are only red and black ants, but as you have found, there are many more kinds than that. That's part of what makes studying ants so exciting! Not only are there many different kinds of ants, they come in many sizes, shapes and colors. We encourage you to look around AntWeb at the amazing diversity of these fascinating insects.

- Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

Dear Eric,

Thanks for your question - this is a common one that many people might be curious about.  Ants and termites share a number of remarkable similarities in their colonial lifestyle, but there are three key physical differences to tell them apart.

  1. Ants have elbowed antennae, where the first segment is much longer than the segments that follow. By contrast, termites have straight antennae that appear like a string of tiny beads.
  2. Ants also have a characteristically constricted "waist" while termites do not. In termites the body segments are much more broadly attached.
  3. Forewings of reproductive (queen and male) ants are larger than hindwings, while reproductive termites have two sets of wings of similar size and shape, often twice the length of their body.
AntAsk ants v termites 1.gif

(http://www.daff.gov.au/aqis/avm/vessels/fact-sheets/termite)


Both ants and termites live in colonies or nests where one or relatively few individuals reproduce while non-reproductive individuals cooperate to care for brood, maintain the nest, and defend the colony. These features - reproductive division of labor (only the queens lay eggs), overlapping generations (you have all ages in the nest), and cooperative brood care (all individuals care for the young, not just the queens) - are hallmarks of eusociality, a condition achieved in relatively few insects. Although all ants and termites are eusocial, both groups vary broadly in colony size and social sophistication. Mature colonies of certain species may contain fewer than 100 physically similar individuals, while colony membership can swell to several million individuals in other ant and termite species and include several morphologically and behaviorally specialized castes (e.g. soldiers, several classes of workers).

AntAsk ants v termites 2.jpg
Camponotus sansabaenus - worker ants vary in size, color, and body proportion. Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).


Despite these similarities, ants and termites are not very closely related and developed social behavior independently. As such, there are several key distinctions between ants and termites in the details of social life. In colonies of ants, bees, and wasps, virtually all nestmates are sisters, and the nest is typically headed by one or a limited number of queens. Males are produced only at certain times of the year and serve as short-lived mobile reproductive machines, emerging from the nest to mate with virgin queens and then quickly die. Once mated, a queen founds her colony (sometimes with the aid of workers from her natal nest) and uses sperm stored from her first mating event for the rest of her life. By contrast, termite colonies are founded by a king and queen, which meet in a mating swarm and together select a nest site. The pair is monogamous and must periodically re-mate. Unlike the female-only colonies of ants, males are an integral part of a termite colony's workforce and may be workers, soldiers, or both, depending on the termite species.

Thumbnail image for AntAsk ants v termites 3.jpg

Prorhinotermes inopinatus worker and soldier termites in a rotting log.  Photo by Alex Wild (www.alexanderwild.com).


Complex social organization and large colony size has facilitated the success of many ants and termites, which are critical to ecosystem functioning around the world. Ants and termites are essential bioturbators, overturning and enriching soil by excavating tunnels and amassing nutrient-rich resources at nest sites. Ants also play a host of other roles, serving as predators, prey, and seed dispersers to a variety of organisms, while termites recycle otherwise inaccessible nutrients into the ecosystem by decomposing wood with the aid of gut bacteria or protists. Perhaps because of their ecological success, several ant and termite species are familiar household pests, including carpenter ants (Camponotus) and the Formosan subterranean termite (Coptotermes formosanus).

Whether ant or termite, social insects are a fascinating and important part of global biodiversity.

- Tim O'Connor & the AntAsk team

Dear Mary, this is a great question!

Almost every ant you ever encounter is female! In ants, all individuals that perform work for the colony are females. We usually refer to these ants as "workers", but in some ant colonies that have different roles, specific workers are sometimes referred to as "soldiers" or "nurses". Regardless of the name and task of these ants, they are all female. The sexuals or reproductives in ants are called "alates". Females are called queens or gynes, while males are usually just called males. In the case of male alates, their only function is to reproduce. They usually stay in their home colony until they are fully developed and then they fly away to mate. Almost all male and female alates have wings and often they mate in the air on nuptial flights. Males usually only mate once and then they die--having fulfilled their purpose in life. The female queens, on contrary, try to found a new colony after mating with one or several males. They then shed their wings and find a suitable place to start a new nest.

When you see a winged individual, you can recognize males based on their small head and their long antennae. Males usually have more antennal segments than the females. When you see a wingless individual, queens have already removed their wings are larger in size than the workers, have a wider thorax due to the wing muscles and they show wing scars. Ant colonies or nests are almost entirely made up of females. So the next time you see an ant without wings, you will know it is female.

 

4casts2.jpg


In this picture, we see (A) a male, (B) a winged young queen, (C) queen after shedding her wings, and (D) a worker of the acacia-ant Pseudomyrmex peperi. The male has long antennae and a small head with large eyes. The winged young queen can be recognized on base of her wings and at the same time shorter antennae. The wingless queen has no wings, but you can still see wing scares. The gaster (rear end) of most egg-laying queens becomes distended with eggs, a state that is called "physogastric". The queen is larger in size than the workers. The worker has short antennae, no wings and no wing scars.


- Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

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