How can you tell if an ant is male or female? (Mary, Springfield, IL, USA)

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.



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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