Ants, a most Amazing Species
By: J. Marlando
One of my most vivid childhood memories is going outside to play in my grandmother’s big, front yard. In her yard there were two types of ants—red ants and black ants. It only took one experience to understand that the red ants were not friendly. One day I took an interest in a red ant hill and was lost in thought when suddenly I was hit with a painful sting and then another and another. I was bitten a half dozen or more times and being inexperienced I just sat there crying until my grandmother or mom came and rescued me. I only tried to befriend black ants after that. Our black ants could crawl all over me and never bite.
When I was a kid I wanted an ant farm but never got one. This was probably because I also wanted gold fish but never took care of them or maybe because I let the guinea pig out of its cage to never to be seen again?
Ants, however, are amazing to watch especially since each individual ant seems to know what his job is. However, a recent Stanford study tells us that there is no one giving orders. Yet an ant doing housekeeping duties may suddenly become a forager when the need arises. Because no one is in charge of the colony, including the queen, how do individual ants know exactly what to do?
Researchers offer that ants, and other animals and fish that operate in the collective—we’ve all seen birds doing this is that they are responding to a collective intelligence. The very notion has far reaching implications not excluding the Jungian idea of a collective unconscious. If Jung is right, we human beings have left the ability of “tuning into the collective" by the wayside ( millions of years ago) while other living creatures have not. When an entire flock of birds make a simultaneous turn, for example, there is no one bird in charge and yet every individual bird “knows” the exact moment to respond with all the other individuals in their flock. Individual ants have this same ability to simply be in communication with the group as if there was only one mind at work.
As a quick aside, this phenomenon might shed light on how two electrons communicate millions of miles apart? In regard to this, what is interesting is that it is estimated that the ant’s brain is made up of 250,000 brain cells while the human brain is around 10,000 million…a thought, however, is that there is a body/mind as opposed to a brain/mind which most scientific thinkers believe is the case; that mind is a mere process of the brain. If this was true, however, then, it seems that a collective intelligence would not be possible. Food for thought!
Ants are incredible creatures and this article sets out to share a lot of their incredible story with you.
Ants in Overview
When I was a young man one of the funniest jokes I knew was to ask people how many sexes there are. Most answered two and I would say, three—the male sex, the female sex and the insects. Hmmm, doesn’t sound as funny as I used to think it was. In any case, there are around 900,000 known species of insects around our globe and billions of individual insects running about. Ants are among the most unique and interesting: If, for example, a person could run as fast for his or her size as an ant can, we humans would be as fast as race horses. As for strength, the common ant can lift 20 times its own weight. Incidentally, the New York Times reported that for every pound of humans, the world holds 300 pounds of insects.
The average lifespan of an ant is around two months but the queen can live for years. Her job is to keep the colony populated. Like bees they have compound eyes or, in other words each eye is made up of many smaller eyes. While they share the same world with us, their world looks much different through their eyes than it does through ours. Also, ants have two stomachs in their abdomens; one holds food for itself and the other holds food for sharing with other colony ants.
Nearly all ants are homebodies but the South American Army Ants are always on the move and they carry their larvae and eggs with them in long columns. Some of the “armies” may have as many as 700,000 of more “troops” in their ranks.
There are also around 47 species of Leafcutter Antsall grow their own crops. They are found in South and Central America, Mexico and parts of the southern United States. Leafcutters stay busy cutting and processing fresh vegetation such as leaves and grasses, an important prerequisite for their farming techniques of growing fungus. A mystery to ponder about this is that genetic studies suggest that fungus is more closely related to animals than to plants.
What is also interesting about the Leafcutter is that they are known to have the largest and most complex (animal) societies on the planet. Beneath their mounds some nests are nearly 100 feet across containing 8 million individuals. That’s only 4 million short of the population of Las Angeles in people but around 7 times more populated than San Diego.
As another aside, human farming just began around 10,000 years ago. We are the forth species to discover agriculture since ants, termites and bark beetles started cultivating their own food some 50 million years ago.
What about Queen Ants?
Becoming a queen ant is based on the colony’s food supply not on the colony’s choices. When food and other resources are low, all larvae develop into female worker ants. As in some third countries we see hunger produce underdeveloped human beings, often quite short and some with weakened immune systems, the lack of care and nourishment in ant colonies produce similar results. However, when the colony’s resources are high, some of the larvae receive better nourishment than others and they develop into winged, sexually mature female ants. Many colonies have more than one queen, even a few hundred in large, ant populations depending on the species.
When conditions are hot and humid, say after a rain, the winged lady ants leave the colony and fly long distances to mate with at least one winged male from another nest (colony). The male delivers sperm to the seminal receptacle of the queen and then…he dies.
After the mating, the queen will seek a suitable place to start a colony and once she has chosen a location, she will settle in and…detach her wings. She will spend the rest of her life populating her community. Incidentally, some female ants do not even need a male to produce her offspring; she produces through asexual parthenogenesis; for ants, a kind of natural cloning process through which the queen delivers her offspring without male fertilization. In those cases, all her offspring are born female.
Once again, it should be noted, however, that the “queen” is not at all the colony’s ruler, which takes us back to the theory of a collective intelligence. At least in observation, a colony of even millions of ants have no leadership or directors. It is like a million minds weaved into a single mind and yet, at the same time, duties in a colony changes for individual ants so I am personally still baffled by the “collective intelligent” theory. What I favor is the Universal Mind view that individual minds can tap into. (It’s all such an amazing contemplation).
As for species, there are far too many to name here but here is a list of the most common ants found around the globe.
Amazon Ants These are perhaps the villains of the ant world: They invade the colonies of other ants, kill off much of the population and capture workers who they enslave.
Carpenter Ants You will find these in your home as they build nests and tunnel though structural wood. Their saving grace is that they actually serve the ecological cycle as decomposers of dead wood. They feed on tree sap and other insects. Some Carpenters grow to be a half inch long.
Citronella Ants Not a very handsome breed but they live on aphids and do not harm wood or invade human food.
Crazy Ants These amusing creatures tend to puzzle observers because unlike other ants that seem so orderly, they run about in all directions with no apparent reason. Crazy ants like to nest in the potted soil of tropical plants.
Field ants Build nests in open areas constructing ant mounds up to 6 feet wide and 3 feet high. They are large ants and may build super colonies with hundreds of millions of workers spreading across thousands of miles.
Fire Ants Fire ants have a terrible sting and while we have plenty of them in America they are actually an import from South American. They like parks, farmland and golf courses to live in.
Leafcutter Ants These amazing insects take pieces of leaf to their underground colonies where they chew the leaves creating a substrate on which they grow their own food. Interestingly, when a queen starts a new colony she brings along a “starter” culture of fungus to begin the farming process of her new location.
Thief Ants These little critters will rob food and brood from other ants but also, they will invade homes searching for food when opportunity arises.
Odorous House Ants Most normally these ants remain outdoors but if you leave anything sweet around, like sugar on your kitchen counter, they may find their way in because these ants have a sweet tooth.
Actually there are over 20,000 species of ants. However, only around half have been identified. Their ancestry goes back over 110 million years ago to wasp-like creatures and, as we have seen in the above, ants today live in small communities to highly developed colonies and are found in almost every area around the globe. They are simply amazing to observe and to contemplate.
Note: My grandmother’s kitchen counter was sometimes invaded by ants. She used to peel a cucumber and leave a couple of slices on the counter and the ants always went away without using sprays or poisons.
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