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Ant social status



Hi, I was curious if ants have a social status within their sub sectors (worker, male). How do they obtain a higher status? And if so does this give them more privilages (ie a bigger living space, more food, first breeding rights).

HUB


Dear Hub,

Thanks for writing to the AntBlog! We contacted an expert on many aspects of ant biology (behavior, colony reproduction, nest architecture, population dynamics, among others), Dr. Walter Tschinkel; here is what he had to say:

"Hello Hubert,
You asked AntBlog whether ant have social status within their colonies, and whether such status might be connected to certain individual advantages and benefits.
The simplest answer is that social status in the sense that we know it within vertebrate societies does not exist in ants. It is helpful to think of ant colonies as analogs to organisms (hence, we often call them superorganisms). Every individual is engaged in helping the colony produce more colonies, just as every cell in an organism is engaged in helping produce more of that organism. In the ants, there is only one (or a few) individual(s) capable of direct reproduction (the queen), while in an organism, only the germ-line cells in the gonads are capable of making gametes and subsequently more organisms. In this light, you can see that different sectors of the colony may be allocated differing amounts of resources, but such allocation serves the needs of the colony as a whole, rather than any individual within it. The individual ants making up the colony are simply the machinery needed to make more colonies.
One of the basic mechanisms that organizes colony function is division of labor (or function). The most basic division of function or labor is reproductive -- most of the ants in a colony are more or less sterile workers, while only one (or a few) individual is capable of mating and laying eggs. Most of these eggs develop into more workers because workers are short-lived and are continuously replaced, whereas the queen has a long life span (in many cases, equal to the life span of the colony). The second principle that organizes the colony is that the workers change jobs as they age. Young workers mostly take care of larvae and pupae, and as they age they switch to more general nest maintenance, food processing, transport within the nest and so on. Only the oldest workers leave the nest to forage, bringing back food for the rest of the colony. Once they begin foraging, their life expectancy is very short (a few weeks).
This change of jobs parallels an upward or outward movement of the worker within the nest. Young workers are born in the deeper parts of the nest, move upward as they age and change jobs, and finally appear near the surface, whereupon they become defenders and foragers during the last part of their lives. There is thus a continuous upward and outward flow of workers. The image here shows a cast of the nest of the Florida harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex badius, and summarizes these movement and labor patterns within the nest.

Once you see the parallels between organisms and superorganisms, you see that division of function or labor is central to both, and that differences in allocation serve the entire entity. The relative size and activity of the liver, or kidneys or circulatory system of an organism serves the entire organism, and any deviation from some norm can be detrimental to the function and fitness of the organism. Similarly, the patterns of division of labor in ant colonies serves the success and fitness of the colony as a whole. The workers are just the gears in that machine."

We hope this answers your question,

Walter Tschinkel, Flavia Esteves & the AntAsk Team


My name is Joseph, a senior biologist at the University of Scranton. I am currently conducting research on morphometric of ants, but we are having some issues. I was curious if you had any papers on the histology of ants, specific on the nervous system or their notochord. Any species will do at the moment, we are just used to looking at mammalian tissue, and not insect samples. Hope to hear back from you soon!

Joey


Hello Joseph,

Thanks for writing! We contacted an expert on the nervous system of ants, Dr. Wulfila Gronenberg; here is what he had to say:

"Dear Joseph,

the nervous systems of insects has been well described for many taxa, and ants are no exception. The basic design is not unlike what you see in vertebrates - they have a brain with visual, olfactory, tactile and other centers including higher order central processing centers, and the have a ventral nerve cord analogous (and probably homologous) to the vertebrate spinal cord and which comprises the sensory and motor centers that control walking, flight (in winged males and females) and abdominal functions. If you want to learn more about ant nervous systems I suggest a review paper that I have written a few years ago:

Gronenberg W (2008) Structure and function of ant (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) brains: Strength in numbers. Myrmecological News 11:25-36.

If you (or anybody else) have difficulties getting hold of the paper, just send me an email: wulfi@neurobio.arizona.edu.
If your question was more about histological and technical aspects (how to dissect, stain or measure ant brains), please let me know and I can point out some more specific information to you.

All the best"

Wulfila Gronenberg, Flavia Esteves & the AntAsk Team

p.s. Joseph, if you create an account on Myrmecological News (for free), you can download Gronenberg's paper.

Cohabiting ants


Hi there, loving your page!

I am on holiday in Andalucia, southern Spain, and right by our front door there is a colony of what look like harvester ants. No more than fifteen centimetres away there are some holes from which some very tiny red ants emerge, about a quarter of the size of the smallest harvester ants. Are these two separate colonies, or different types of the same ant? They don't look related and they don't appear to cross into each others territory. I would have thought they'd be fighting all the time if they're not related. Why might this be? Are their diets different enough that they aren't in competition? Sorry to bombard you with questions!

Kind regards,

Ian


Dear Ian,

Greetings from San Francisco, and thanks for writing! We contacted an expert on taxonomy and ecology of Europe and Macaronesia ant species, Dr. Xavier Espadaler; here is what he had to say:

"It is not an unusual situation for different ant species to have nest entrances rather close. Coexistence is a possibility; fighting is another possibility. But if the two societies are already nesting close to each other, it is likely that they differ in some way, in their daily activity cycles, or in their food habits.

It is possible that the harvesting ants (Messor) are living close to a Pheidole pallidula nest. This last species is all too common in Andalucía. Their nest, with one or a few entrances, is usually surrounded by the tiny remains of the scavenging they do upon any kind of arthropod remains or corpses; they may capture living prey as well, if small enough. The remains look like a dark zone, somewhat semicircular, bordering the nest entrance. If you are able to look at them under a magnifier, you would see shining heads, wing or leg or thorax fragments, that are the non edible parts of their foraging."

Hope this helps,

Xavier Espadaler, Flavia Esteves, & the AntAsk Team

Neighborhood ant farm?!


I have an ant infestation in my house and I have just begun terro traps. I have already attempted an ant killer by black flag but unfortunately that failed because they weren't attracted to it. I was speaking with one of my neighbors today and it seems that they have the same issue. Also the same issue for a neighbor that lives a street over. I'm worried that the traps are nothing compared to the abundance of ants. Any advice on getting rid of them?

Cortney


Dear Cortney,

Thanks for writing! Regarding your question: since your traps are not attracting the ants living in your house, I would try something like a cafeteria experiment. It consists of offering them an array of food items that they might eat on (e.g. peanut butter, jam or jelly, and tuna). Once you discover which item works better, add the appropriate poison, and set the traps. You will find really important information on traps and baits here.

However, ants are quite important for our surrounding environment, providing services like bringing nutrients to the surface of the soil, aerating the soil, dispersing seeds, and predating pest species. Many of them are beautiful too (like our special guest here). I hope you will fall in love with them while observing their interactions on your baits, and find a way to coexist with them!

I hope this helps,

Flavia Esteves & the AntAsk Team

Battleplan


Hi,

I stumbled upon your site while googling 'how to make peace with your ant infestation' (there seem to be no suggestions on that, by the way). I thought perhaps someone could offer advice for our particular situation.

I live in south Florida. In March, my husband and I bought our first house. Before closing, I did see a pile of dead ants in a corner of the family room, but the home inspector's report didn't find signs of any infestation, or at least 'wood destroying organisms'.

Once we moved and settled in, I began to realize that there were serious ant colonies on the property, and noticed ants in the Florida room, also in one of the bathrooms. I think in the beginning, they were all dead ants on the window sills and in that bathtub. As summer progressed, the problem got a bit worse. They can walk right through our windows and front door.

I did a bunch of online research, and I'm thinking they are carpenter ants. Not as big as the ones up north, but carpenter seems to fit the description. Because I have a toddler and two cats, my first line of defense was a borax/powdered sugar mix. I scored a big hit when I found old timbers half buried in the front yard near the walkway and removed them, and also pored boiling water at the foundation under a window in the back. We also replaced the weather stripping at the front door, and I've been caulking baseboards and around windows. For about a week, maybe two, it seemed like I was making some real progress, however this morning I saw ants swarming again out front in the morning. Late this afternoon I noticed ant hills surrounding potted plants in the back (near the house). I shook the pots a bit, and ants also started swarming out of the pots, up the trellis, and carrying eggs up into a previously unseen hole in the eave. Great.

I'm not positive, but I think the ants I've seen over the last few days are smaller than the originals, so maybe these little guys have stepped in to fill the void of the bigger ones. Regardless, we have ants in our walls, and apparently in our attic. I know that to truly keep these guys out we have to replace some rotting wood at the door in the back, but our windows are so old that they can literally crawl right through them - the windows themselves, not gaps around them. I have a little one and a couple critters that prevent me from putting down serious poison, and our budget is falling a bit shy of relaxing the doors and windows.

Is there any advice you can give on how to begin to win this battle? The house was empty for a long time, and the responses of ants in different areas let me know that's it's a big ass colony, or that the satellites have close communication.. Any hope you can give me is greatly appreciated-

Alyssa

Dear Alyssa,

Thanks for writing! I am glad you are still trying to make peace with ants that live in your house. Most ants are beneficial for our surrounding environment (including yards) - they actually rule our terrestrial world: cycling and bringing nutrients to the surface of the soil; aerating the soil; dispersing seeds; predating pest species, among many other "services". Also, children generally like to spend time observing ants just pass by, or being attracted to a bait, and it can stimulate their curiosity towards our natural world. You can read more about how good ants are here.

If after all you think its better to get rid of your crawling roommates, you should know you are already doing some of the most effective things to eradicate them from your home, and here you will find important information on baiting. Further, you can drown ant colonies in the plant pots, using warm water, and leave some clove sachets in strategic areas of your home (like in the food shelves) to repeal them.

If you really have carpenter ants, this may indicate you have a more serious problem, because they often build nests in compromised wood. I would first be sure they are really carpenter ants - try this and this for identification; and, if positive, you can try this to eliminate them from your place.

Please, look for more tips here, and have a good lucky in your endeavor!

Flavia Esteves & the AntAsk Team


Hi!

I came across your interesting website and I wanted to find out if there are any images available for what ant dung looks like.

Many thanks,

Cristina

Hi Cristina,

Thanks for your question! I have to admit, although I've spent a fair amount of time looking at ants, they're usually either dead or foraging: I've never caught one in the act, so this was a fun question for me to try to answer. Luckily, I have access to some other people with lots of ant experience, so I'm able to share their insights.

First, though, let's start with some terminology. When insects eliminate undigested waste, it's called "frass." This is a general term, that also (depending on who you ask) encompases other little particles and exudates that result from insect activities. For example, wood dust that results from carpenter ants gnawing through wood is sometimes considered "frass," even though the carpenter ants don't actually eat the wood - they just cut through it. Since your question is obviously directed towards elimination, we'll focus there.

Something about ants that many people don't realize is that as adults, they are unable to consume big chunks of food. Their jaws are often good at holding and/or cutting through objects, but not well-adapted for chewing food into pieces small enough to swallow. Some ants can eat pollen grains, but solids much bigger than that will not pass through the narrow constrictions at an ant's neck and waist. In a peculiar reversal of the "mamma bird" situation we've all seen on nature shows (and in real life, if you're lucky), adult ants must bring solid foods back to the nest, where the ant babies (larvae) eat it, and then vomit some of the chewed and partially digested food back into the mouths of the adults.

Because adult ants never eat solid foods, their frass tends to be a dark-colored liquid--at least as far as the ants that AntAsk Team members Corrie, James, and Steffi are familiar with are concerned. They (the ants, not the people) also excrete metabolic waste, analogous to urine, in the form of white urate crystals, which James describes as mixing together with the feces in various proportions: "sort of like coffee creamer."

The ant larvae, however, are a different story. They only eliminate waste once during their development, in the form of a dark, compacted mass (can I say "turd" on this blog?) shortly before pupation. This cuts down on diaper changes considerably. Interestingly, albeit disgustingly, sometimes adult ants eat this meconium (reported in Cerapachys biroi by Ravary and Jaisson 2002, and Cephalotes rohweri by Creighton and Nutting 1965). I apologize if you're reading this right before a meal.

As I wrap up this post, I realize I haven't actually pointed you in the direction of any real pictures. There are some pictures of meconia among Alex Wild's excellently curated collection of ant pictures, but I'm not aware of any pictures of an adult ant in the act of defecating. Refuse piles in subterranean ant nests, and below arboreal ant nests are more commonly photographed, but they often contain the bodies of dead workers and discarded prey parts, in addition to frass in the strict sense. So the best I can do is leave you with James' vivid image of a fine white powder mixing into a dark drop of liquid, like creamer into coffee. If I find a good picture of an ant in the act of "frass-ing", I'll let you know!

Hope this helps!
Best,
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

ps. if you're interested in other things that come out of ants, please see this previous post about ant pee:
http://www.antweb.org/antblog/2010/08/why-do-i-get-itchy-when-an-ant-crawls-on-my-skin-carrie-austria.html

Territorial battles



Hello from Brookfield, Wisconsin.

It's great to see this service online--yet another wonder of the Web.

My question involves small (not much over a millimeter long), red ants that nest around our home and seem particularly to like areas near our front walk.

More than once I have noticed these guys flowing onto the concrete and forming a large gathering in the open air--see attached photos.

Why do they do this?

Thanks,
Ted

Small Red Ants 1.jpg

Small Red Ants 2.jpg


Hi Ted,

These are a species of pavement ant, Tetramorium caespitum. They are common in urban areas, hence their common name. The event pictured is a large territorial battle between colonies. Territoriality is common in ants as a whole, varying by species and colony age. Ants typically protect their territories for access to food or nesting space.

The closely related Japanese pavement ant, Tetramorium tsushimae, is similarly territorial to the pavement ants that you see in Wisconsin. In this species, colonies with larger territories containing larger numbers of seeds and other food resources are able to raise larger numbers of reproductive individuals. However, food is not the only factor determining colony success. The ideal temperatures for raising queens and males are between 27.5 and 30 degrees Celcius (81.5 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit) and colonies also engage in territorial battles to gain access to nesting sites with these temperatures. Therefore, the pavement ants on the sidewalks outside your house are probably fighting for access to both food and optimal nesting sites.

While fights among pavement ants often lead to the deaths of large numbers of workers, this is not a requirement for ants to maintain territories. A species of honeypot ant, Myrmecocystus mimicus, is also highly territorial, but, rather than risk the lives of workers, engages in ritual displays. Hundreds of ants from each competing colony confront each other and stand as tall as they are able while inflating their gasters to appear larger. Eventually, a winner is decided based exclusively on the differences in workers between colonies and territory is ceded to the apparently stronger colony. If colonies are drastically different in size then the smaller colony will be destroyed but otherwise, no physical interactions occur. You should take a look at the papers listed at the end of the post if you want to know more details.

Thanks for your question,
Ben Rubin, James Trager, & the AntAsk Team

Holldobler B. (1981) Foraging and spatiotemporal territories in the honey ant Myrmecocystus mimicus Wheeler (Hymenopera: Formicidae). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 9: 301-314.

Sanada-Morimura S, Satoh T, Obara Y. (2006) Territorial behavior and temperature preference for nesting sites in a pavement ant Tetramorium tsushimae. Insectes Sociaux 53: 141-148.

Hello there,

I have a query about these ants we saw in our local park in Madrid, Spain. The ants themselves seemed fairly standard, with one nest hole, and a long line of foraging ants heading out to a nearby area and coming back with various tasty tidbits. As can be seen from the photo the ants were a number of different sizes.

Ants.jpg

However, amidst the ants were several white creatures (in the photo centre left, bottom right and the tail of one top left).

Ants_2.jpg

These looked nothing like ants, but appeared to be coexisting with them peaceably. They were going in and out of the ant hole, and were ignored by the ants. One or two travelled along the foraging line, but didn't appear to do any actual foraging. They were quite quick too, about as nimble as the ants.

Any information as to what these might be would be gratefully appreciated. My guesses would be a) some precursor ant stage (pupa or some such) b) other insect living symbiotically with the ant or c) I have no more ideas.

Many thanks!

David

******

Hi David,

Your second guess is correct! The other insects in your photograph are in fact silverfish, cohabiting with the harvester ant Messor barbarus. There are many species of such myrmecophilous (or "ant-loving") Zygentoma around the world, with 16 occurring in the Iberian Peninsula alone. Unfortunately, without a clearer image, it is difficult to provide you with a more precise ID (several different species have been observed in Messor nests in particular), but based on a superficial diagnosis, they most likely belong to the genus Neoasterolepisma.

Silverfish are among a wide variety of other arthropods (including beetles, crickets, spiders, millipedes, even cockroaches) known to inhabit the nests of ants, either commensally or parasitically, and like other myrmecophiles, silverfish have evolved very successful strategies for avoiding detection by their ant hosts. While looking nothing like the ants, as you say, these scaly symbionts are able to blend in with the rest of the colony by rubbing against "callow" or immature workers and adopting the unique chemical profile that sister ants use to recognize one another. In this way, the silverfish enjoy easy access to shelter and resources within the nest and can intermingle freely with foragers on the outside (no doubt pilfering some of the tasty tidbits you observed being brought back to the harvester's granaries). Of course, this chemical disguise is only temporary, so the silverfish must also rely on another characteristic adaptation--speed--if their cover starts to fade, hence their nimble-footedness around the workers.

While some myrmecophilous silverfish are apparently highly specialized, demonstrating a preference for a single ant species, most are generalist interlopers, using their peculiar knack for chemical mimicry to infiltrate the subterranean strongholds of a variety of different ants. Another widespread Mediterranean silverfish species, Proatelurina pseudolepisma, for example, was found in the nests of a total of 13 different species of ants! Those of Messor barbarus, incidentally (the same species in your photograph) happened to be the most popular.

Hope this helps!

Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team

We found these ants below in Anduki (Seria, Brunei):

Cataulacus.jpg

******

Hi Uli,

The ants pictured belong to the genus Cataulacus, a group of arboreal-nesting ants widely distributed across the Old World tropics. The exact species is likely Cataulacus latissimus, one of the more sizable of the dozen or so Indo-Australian species, known to occur in West Malaysia, Sumatra, Singapore, and of course Borneo.

Thanks for the photo,

Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team


Hello Antweb,
I've been doing some research on ant species richness and was wondering what locality is considered to have the highest species richness and if there is any literature to back up this information, thanks!


Hi Alejandro,

Ant diversity is highest at low latitudes (the tropics) and drops off towards the poles. This is a common phenomenon among many groups of organisms and Terry McGlynn has a relatively accessible piece about it here. This website is also a great way to explore the distribution of ant genera across the world. There is quite a bit of literature on the subject including, but certainly not limited to, the references listed below and the citations therein. The book "Ant Ecology", listed first in the below references, is a great overview of many ant related subjects, including their geographic distribution.

Thanks for your question,
Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team

References:
Dunn RR, Guénard, B, Weiser, MD & Sanders, NJ. 2010. Geographic gradients. In Ant Ecology (eds. L. Lach, C.L. Parr & K.L. Abbott) pp. 38-58. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Guénard B, Weiser MD & Dunn RR. 2012. Global mode ls of ant diversity suggest regions where new discoveries are most likely are under disproportionate deforestation threat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109: 7368-7373.

Kaspari M, Ward PS & Yuan M. 2004. Energy gradients and the geographic distribution of local ant diversity. Oecologia 140: 407-413.

Kusnezov N. 1957. Numbers of species of ants in faunae of different latitudes. Evolution 11: 298-299.

Jeanne RL. 1979. A latitudinal gradient in rates of ant predation. Ecology 60: 1211-1224.

Jenkins CN, Sanders NJ, Andersen AN, Arnan X, Brühl CA, Cerda X, Ellison AM, Fisher BL, Fitzpatrick MC, Gotelli NJ, Gove AD, Guénard B, Lattke JE, Lessard J-P, Mcglynn TP, Menke SB, Parr CL, Philpott SM, Vasconcelos HL, Weiser MD & Dunn RR. 2011. Global diversity in light of climate change: the case of ants. Diversity and Distributions 17: 652-662.

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