September 2021 – The Ants Go Marching One By One

I remember lying in the dry grasses of summers end as a little girl watching intently the troops of ants running along the garden hose as though it were their highway. I would try to follow where they were heading, sometimes several in a row with white pill shaped eggs twice their size over their heads.

Once I found a line of them marching up the side of my house, across the soffit and down a rope to harvest nectar from the hummingbird feeder. It amazed me that they could see drops of sugar water falling from the sky and be able to navigate their way to the source despite it hanging virtually in mid-air. To be able to communicate, delegate and organize their colony of workers to form a highway to harvest all they can! How fascinating are ants?!

With over 13,800 species of ants in the world, most are beneficial aside from the stinging fire ant which will torture anyone in their path and the pesky carpenter ant that will excavate and build tunnels in the wood of your home. 

Ants build nests full of natural material which eventually decays, feeding the plants and animals around them. They also contribute to decomposition and fertilization through their digestion of plants, other insects or dead animals. Many organisms, birds and animals eat ants as part of their regular diet. Ants are also very beneficial to the soil, as they aerate and allow the exchange of water and oxygen.   

Recent studies have found that ants have inhabited the Earth for 140-168 million years and were here during the Jurassic period with the dinosaurs! This new research shows that ants actually survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs and an entire ice age. 

Ants don’t have lungs; in fact they breathe through a series of tiny holes along the sides of their bodies called spiracles. When the ant moves, it helps to circulate oxygen through the tubes, and carbon dioxide is released back out. Ants require a very small amount of oxygen, so little that they can survive underwater for great lengths of time off of the air molecules stuck to its fine hairs. And they can open and close the little tubes on their sides to allow air in and carbon dioxide out, but it would actually be impossible to try to suffocate an ant.

Ants are also lacking ears but this does not make them incapable of hearing. They actually listen with their feet, feeling the vibrations in the ground. The signals vibrate through the subgenual organ just below their knees, allowing them to be aware of their surroundings and be alerted to danger especially when away from the colony foraging.

Through pheromones, or chemical messages, ants are able to communicate and leave signals telling other ants where to go. This is how they build their exploratory roads to the hummingbird feeder in the sky, and once a secure route has been established, can send for more ants to join the task of harvesting for the good of the colony. Ants also leave pheromones to tell when areas are getting too congested, and they actually avoid densely congested areas and adjust their travel speed accordingly.

With two stomachs, ants are extremely efficient as they use one stomach for their own food, and the other is used to store food for other ants. When ants forage, they can collect food for ants that stay at the colony protecting the queen. Through a process called trophallaxis, the ants regurgitate the food to feed those left behind. Everyone has a job to do, and everyone in the colony is taken care of.

With a larger muscle to body ratio than humans, ants have amazing strength and are able to lift 10 to 50 times their body weight depending on the species. The Asian Weaver Ant can actually lift up to 100 times its body weight.

One of the most incredible facts about ants is that they are the very first farmers! That’s right, just as farmers raise livestock and grow crops for foods, ants actually tend and cultivate groups of insects for a food source. One of the best examples of this behavior is with aphids. Ants will protect and guard a population of aphids, even providing shelter from the weather in nests, in order to secure a steady supply of honeydew, a sugar-rich secretion of aphids after they have eaten plant sap.

As summer slows and the days begin to get a little shorter, I cannot help but think of the many memories of watching ants travelling to and from places with agendas only known to their colonies. Now you know, there is much more to those little creatures than what you see. They are truly amazing, and all working together as a team for a collective purpose. Society might do some good to watch the ants a little closer!

By Angela Hicke – Van Isle Wild

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