| Story by Meghan McMahon |
Nothing can ruin a picnic faster than ants, at least if cartoons are to be believed.
Although an army of ants may not be able to carry away your al fresco lunch piece by piece, these mighty insects are exceptionally strong relative to their size. A single ant can carry up to 50 times its body weight, and working together with other ants they can move even larger objects, National Geographic reports.
Most of us don’t give ants a second thought unless an invasion of them happens to be ruining our time outside. In reality, though, ants are a critically important part of the ecosystem. Ants are essential for turning and aerating soil, even more so than earthworms in some areas. They help spread plant seeds and pollinate plants and flowers, and many ants are decomposers, creating healthy habitats in the soil all around us, according to the San Diego Zoo. Lastly, ants serve as an important food source for many animals, and not just for anteaters.
The world is home to more than 12,000 species of ants, and these essential insects live on every continent except Antarctica. Ants are so populous across the globe that the combined weight of all the ants on Earth is about the same as the combined weight of all the humans on Earth, according to the San Diego Zoo.
Ants are social insects that live in large colonies. As many as 8 million ants can live in a single colony, and each ant has a specific role to perform, according to the San Diego Zoo.
The social behavior of ants allows them to work together to achieve the common goals of survival, growth and reproduction, reports Arizona State University.
Like beehives, ant colonies have queens, and the queens’ responsibility is to lay eggs to allow the colony to survive, according to National Geographic. The worker ants in a colony are all female, and those are the ants we normally see outside the nest. The worker ants are responsible for foraging for food, building the nest, protecting the colony and caring for the queen’s offspring. Male ants typically have just one purpose to the colony, mating with the queen, and after this function is complete the male ants may die.
Ants must communicate with one another to keep the colony organized. Rather than talking or otherwise vocalizing, ants secrete chemicals called pheromones to communicate with other ants, according to the San Diego Zoo. These pheromones each have a scent that the other ants can sense through their antennae. The scent trails can lead other ants to a food supply or warn of an intruder. Even dead ants have a scent that communicates to other worker ants to remove its body from the colony.
Ant colonies can exist for decades, even as the resident ants die off. A worker ant can live for a few years, while queen ants can live for 15 or more. As the ants die, though, they are replaced by new insects that will continue the work of previous generations, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.