Ant Scramble
A worker ant carries a pupa.
A worker ant carries a pupa. Photo: Hugo Darras

Ants are one of the most common types of insects. In fact, ants are found in almost all terrestrial environments, and almost everyone recognizes an ant when they see one.

Ants are a type of social insect. Such insects live in colonies consisting of three groups of individuals known as castes. The castes are reproductive females (queens), males and non-reproductive females (workers).

There are social insects other than ants, including termites, some bees and some wasps. Ants and termites only exist as social insects, whereas there are many bees and wasps that do not live in a social structure. Bumble bees and honey bees are social insects. So are paper wasps and bald-face hornets.

Many species of bees and wasps do not live in social colonies, and these insects are known as solitary. Sweat bees and carpenter bees live a solitary life - a single female establishes a nest and cares for her children. Mud daubers are examples of solitary wasps.

As it turns out, there are no ants or termites that exhibit a solitary lifestyle. Some scientists believe that these insects might have been solitary insects in the past and have abandoned the solitary life. For example, it has been said that cockroaches are semisocial because they tend to live in groups consisting of both baby and adult individuals. Cockroaches also exhibit some biological characteristics similar to termites. In other words, you might say cockroaches are just prehistoric termites.

There are a lot of species of ants, and they are classified scientifically under the family name of Formicidae. That is because ants produce formic acid in their bodies and use it as a sting or a trail-marking substance. It is this characteristic of ants that prompted Robert Frost to write the line, "Then word goes forth in Formic" in his poem "Departmental" relative to the use of this chemical for communication between ants.

Various groups of ants are known by common names. For instance, there are the army ants. These are mostly tropical ants that are nomadic and travel across the landscape in columns, similar to human military units. There are leaf-cutting ants that literally cut leaves to carry to their nests. Harvester ants collect seeds to store in their nests for food. Carpenter ants are named because they build their home in wood. There are also fire ants that possess a painful sting. Some ant species steal worker pupae from other ant colonies and are dubbed slave-making ants. There are species that build mounds and - you guessed it - are called mound-building ants.

Regardless of the species, all of these social animals called ants depend on the success of the colony for survival. If the colony dies, the individual ants will not be able to exist for long. Therefore, when something disturbs an ant nest, the individual ants take action to protect the colony. They sting, and they bite in an attempt to ward off whatever is threatening the colony.

If the ant nest structure has been breached, the ants will try to carry the eggs, larvae and pupae in the nest to safety in what can best be described as a mad scramble. The frenzied ants scurry hither and yon, toting in their mouths an egg, a larva or a pupa. The future of the colony depends on saving the queen and as many of the immature forms - called the brood - as possible.

The last time I witnessed such an ant scramble was when I was cleaning up some dead leaves and found a crumpled plastic seedling plant container that had become home to an ant nest. Needless to say, when I picked up the container and dumped the contents including the ant nest, the ants didn't think of my clean-up activity as a thing of beauty. Some of the ants went into defensive mode and crawled up my arm biting as they went. Other ants grabbed an as-yet-unhatched sister and headed to who knows where.

I really don't know if the ant colony survived or not. I suspect that under such dire circumstances it probably didn't. However, as an entomologist, I couldn't help but marvel at the ant's scramble to salvage what little remained of their colony after a horrendous event.

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By Tom Turpin, Professor / Insect Outreach / Instruction Development Specialist
The Educational Store