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Ant Social Systems

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Ant Social Systems

Ant Social Systems
The social structure of ants is a very complex and interesting one. They live together in underground colonies where they divide labor amongst each individual and work as a cohesive unit. “Scientists estimate that there are about 20,000 different ant species roaming the Earth today (Binns, 2006).” While each species is unique in looks, habitat and food intake, they all share a unified behavior. Of all social insects ants are amongst the highest developed, their families or colonies are divided up into a defined caste system which consists of the queen ant, worker ants and drones. Further investigation into the fascinating life of these little creatures shows how they care for the young, reproduce, and benefit from generation overlap while maintaining very complex living quarters.

Containment Structures

With such intricate social systems it only makes sense that their homes are just as complex. Ants reside underground, in city like structures, where a series of tunnels are the highways that connect rooms or chambers together. These chambers serve many different purposes. They are nurseries for the eggs to hatch and larvae to develop, they are places to store all the food that has been foraged and they can serve as a place to mate safely, allowing for the queen to have a chamber of her own. These impressive intricate structures are created and maintained solely by the female worker ants. They make these tunnels and chambers by digging and carrying out clumps of dirt with their mandibles which are taken to the surface. This in turn creates the very recognizable ant hills that we see (Howstuffworks, 2008). These impressive underground metropolises can at times be very small or they can be very large, reaching miles in width and depth. The ant, on average, moves more dirt or soil than any other living organism.

Division of labor With colonies being potentially so large, in order for it to work properly, there must be some sort of order and hierarchy in place. The caste system ensures that each ant has a place and duty to perform. These roles are not randomly given out; they are assigned based on genetics. The queen has wings and is larger than workers; though after she mates she loses her wings. The drones are fertile males that have wings also but their wings are permanent. The largest group in numbers is made up of different types of workers (Jolons Ant Kingdom, 2008). The queen’s job is simple; she mates and lays eggs her whole life. She is the mother of all the ants in her colony though she has very little authority, the term queen, therefore, can be misleading. The workers feed her and protect her at all cost however. The colony looks to her for their expansion and development. The survival and success of the colony is really her responsibility (Jolons Ant Kingdom, 2008). The drones, or fertile male ants, have no real function in the colony. They do not help the colony with building or protection and are the smallest of all the castes. Their sole purpose is to mate with a queen, during a mating flight, so that she can produce eggs. These ants are the result of unfertilized eggs which are laid by the queen and after mating they do not live very long (Jolons Ant Kingdom, 2008). The worker caste however is the most active, productive and vital for the success of the colony. While the queen provides the numbers, the workers are the ones that care for and ensure the eggs hatch. The worker’s job does not end at caring for the young. These ants are responsible for building and excavating the nest, foraging for food, defending the colony and caring for the queen. The different duties of the workers are based solely on their stage in life. Young workers care for the queen and the young but as they grow they start doing the other duties like foraging or defending (Jolons Ant Kingdom, 2008).
Generation overlap With the fact that different aged workers do different tasks the ant colony needs to have several generations going at the same time in order to make sure all tasks are completed. The majority of colonies have at least two generations overlapping at any given time. Over lapping generations serves several purposes. Firstly the older generations help ensure the younger generations are successful and with several generations going at the same time the colony can ensure that the young is cared for, foraging is ongoing and the colony is well protected.
Ant reproduction is a very interesting subject and can happen one of two ways, either by male aggregation or female calling (The University of Arizona, 2002). Either tends to be just as successful as the other. Various environmental triggers start the male aggregation. This is where the drones and the unfertilized queens fly up into the air and form a swarm, referred to as a nuptial flight. The queens are fertilized in mid-air then fly off to find a suitable place to start her colony. Once the queen finds a place she sheds her wings and starts building a nest so she can start laying eggs (The University of Arizona, 2002). After breeding the male dies within a few days. In female calling the young queens of numerous colonies surface, then release pheromones which attract the male ants. In this form of reproduction, insemination can happen in various ways depending on the species of ant. In some species the queen is fertilized while staying on the ground, she then flies off to start a colony on her own. In other species breeding is more of a dramatic event with a group of males swarming close to the ground to encase the queen in a ball like formation until she is fertilized. She will then break free of the swarm and fly off to start a nest.
Care of young Once the queen has bred and found a spot to start her family she will lay eggs. Once the eggs hatch and turn into larvae she cares for them. After several molts they turn into pupa and then to adult ants. The queen only cares for the first generation of her colony, afterwards that generation will always care for the next upcoming generation. When eggs are laid worker ants will remove them from the queen’s chamber and take them to the chamber that is used as the nursery, here the workers will care for them and groom them until they hatch (Howstuffworks, 2008). After they hatch more worker ants will move the larvae to a different chamber where they “feed them various pieces of other arthropods (Elzinga, 2004).” Once the larvae are well fed they will either spin a cocoon or be covered in a thin layer of skin where they will transform into an adult ant and the cycle begins again (Howstuffworks, 2008).

Ants are one of the most interesting and successful groups of living organisms in the world. This is due to their altruistic behavior and ability to coexist and divide workloads perfectly. They work together for one common goal and that is the success and survival of the colony. As the research shows Ants live in eusocial societies, each individual ant has a purpose and a duty to perform which they do flawlessly and without hesitation. Ants may be small but they work together so well that they function as one large entity.

Binns, C. (2006). Why Ants Rule the World. Retrieved from
Elzinga, R.J. (2004). Fundamentals of entomology (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall
Howstuffworks. (2008). Ant. Retrieved from
Jolons Ant Kingdom. (2008). Ant Castes. Retrieved from
The University of Arizona. (2002). The Behavior of Ants. Retrieved from

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