How ants mate
- Animal Sex: How Ants Do It
- How do Ants Reproduce?
- Abundant Insects
- Ant Life Cycle
- Ant Swarms
- Starting a New Colony
- Worker Ants
- Multiple Queens
- Colony Budding
- Why Ants Have Wings Only Sometimes During the Year
- Swarms of Flying Ants
- Ants with Wings
- Importance of Identification
- Effective Ant Control
- Ant Reproduction
- Ant Life Span
Animal Sex: How Ants Do It
Ants are social insects belonging to the order Hymenoptera, which also includes wasps and bees. And though people typically don’t think of ants as flying insects, ant sex is often a crowded, aerial event not so different from the mating flights of honeybees.
Ant society is divided into several castes, including workers, soldiers, drones and queens. Workers and soldiers are flightless females that take care of the colony. Drones, which develop from unfertilized eggs, are winged males born with the sole purpose of procreation. Breeding females can also fly — they become queens after mating, breaking off their wings and starting a new colony (or joining a multi-queen colony).
Two main “syndromes,” or mating strategies, exist among the 20,000 ant species across the globe, explains Florida State University ant specialist Walter Tschinkel. During male-aggregation syndrome, drones swarm over conspicuous landmarks, such as hilltops and tall trees, and breeding females soon join them.
A pair mates (in the air) when a male inserts his aedeagus (analog of a penis) into a female’s reproductive tract and deposits sperm. The sperm travels to the female’s spermatheca, or sperm-storage receptacle; the female will use this singular batch of stored sperm to reproduce for the rest of her life. [The 7 Weirdest Animal Penises]
In some ants, such as fire ants, a female will only mate with one male before departing the “nuptial flight” to start a new colony. Harvester ants and other species will mate with five to 15 drones before calling it quits, Tschinkel told LiveScience.
During the less common female-calling syndrome, breeding females come up to the surface of their natal colonies and release pheromones to attract males for mating, which occurs on the ground.
In both syndromes, males often die shortly after mating.
How do Ants Reproduce?
Ants are one of the most abundant insects on our planet and the reasons are their eusocial, complex societal behaviors and their ability to survive in many and various ecosystems. Like most other animal societies, reproduction is one of the core reasons why ants are so prevalent.
Reproduction for ants is a complex phenomenon that involves finding, selecting and successfully fertilizing females to ensure that the eggs laid are able to survive and molt through the successive stages of the ant’s life cycle – larvae, pupae and adults.
Ant Life Cycle
A brief description of the respective stages within the ant’s life cycle may be helpful when describing how ants reproduce. The eggs are small and cream colored and tended to by the workers.
Ant larvae have no legs and are grub-like in appearance. Pupae are somewhat the same in appearance as adult worker ants and are initially cream colored, but become darker before becoming adult ants.
The adult stages are the older ants we typically see foraging for food or protecting the colony from intruders, while the nurse ant adults are younger workers that attend to the needs of the queen and the eggs, larvae and pupae. The colony queen ants are almost always bigger than other members of their colony.
Each ant colony begins with, and centers upon, the queen, whose sole purpose is to reproduce. This reproductive behavior begins with winged males and virgin winged queens leaving the existing nest and swarming to search for a mate from another colony.
The males and females within the swarm are called alates and their wings allow them to disperse away from the “mother” colony, so the likelihood is greater that no inbreeding with their relatives occurs.
Starting a New Colony
Once mated, the queen never mates again. Instead of repetitive mating, she stores the male’s sperm in a specialized pouch until such time as she opens the pouch and allows sperm to fertilize the eggs she produces.
After mating, queen ants and male ants lose their wings. The queen scurries off in search of a site to start her new nest. If she survives, she digs a nest, lays eggs, and single-handedly raises her first brood that consists entirely of workers. After mating, the male generally lives a short life in isolation.
The nest’s queen controls the gender and function of her offspring since her fertilized eggs become either wingless female workers or reproductively capable virgin queens.
Unfertilized eggs develop into winged males who do no work other than to fertilize a virgin queen. The queen produces myriads of workers by secreting a chemical that retards wing growth and ovary development in the female larvae. Virgin queens are produced only when there are sufficient workers to allow for the expansion of the colony.
The workers enlarge the nest, excavate elaborate tunnel systems, and transport new eggs into special hatching chambers. Hatchling larvae are fed and cleaned, and pupated larvae in cocoons are protected until the young adults emerge to become workers themselves. At this point the colony’s workers are mostly directed to expansion of the colony and caring for the queen.
Depending upon the ant species, it may take from one to several years for a colony to become large enough for the queen to begin producing virgin queens and males that will leave the colony, swarm, mate and begin a new colony in another location. This process and behavior is typical of most ant colonies.
However, some ant species reproduce and develop new colonies with several queens who work together. Sometimes, groups of workers swarm from the nest with a young queen to help her establish her new nest.
In colonies with several already fertile queens, an entire group of ants will break away along with their with their individual queens to establish individual colonies. In single queen colonies, such as those of some fire ants, the death of the queen means the death of the colony, as she leaves no successors.
Colonies with multiple queens may also reproduce by a process called colony budding. Ants that reproduce by budding do not have mating swarms. Budding occurs when one or more fertile queens and a group of workers leave an established nest and move to a new nest site.
The respective roles of queen and workers remain the same in the budded colony since the workers assist in the establishment and care of the new, budded colony. Pharaoh ants, some fire ants, ghost ants and Argentine ants, some of the most difficult ant species to control, spread by budding.
Interestingly, Pharaoh ant workers by themselves can form a successful budded colony by developing and caring for the queens that are produced from the ant brood they brought along with them.
Why Ants Have Wings Only Sometimes During the Year
Ants with wings can be a pretty common sight at certain times of the year because at least some members of almost all ant species can develop wings and fly.
Winged ants are swarming ants seeking to breed and reproduce. Flying ants may be male (the drone) or female (the queen). Both are reproductive ants that are seeking to mate and breed the next generation of ants for the survival of their colony.
Swarms of Flying Ants
During early to mid-spring, “swarms” of flying ants numbering into the thousands can be seen leaving their colonies and going on mating or “nuptial” flights. A colony sends out a large number of swarmers because only a very small percentage actually make it through mating to start a new generation. The majority will be eaten by predators, such as birds or dragonflies, or they will die from lack of food or water.
The ants of a species within an area typically emerge around the same time because the swarming is triggered by temperature and other weather, such as recent rains. Almost all ant species do swarm, and spring and fall are common seasons for the mating flights. However, there also are some species that mate in summer or other times of the year.
Ants with Wings
Only reproductive ants have wings, and they will are winged and able to fly only during the breeding season. Ant species that do not swarm do not have winged members, and they increase their populations through budding. Which, basically means, a queen and trailing reproductive males leave the nest and walk to another site to form a new colony.
It is important to note that the foraging worker ants of any species that you see trailing on the sidewalk or in your kitchen will never have wings. So if you do see winged ants in or around your home, you can almost bet that they are seeking to create a new colony.
Once the male and female mate, the female “queen” will remove her wings to start a new nest. The male drone, whose only purpose in life is to mate, will live a few months at most, then die after mating. Thus, for that short period of winged life after mating, these ants are, for the most part, relatively harmless when found outdoors, and are simply part of the natural life cycle of ants.
Importance of Identification
If you see swarming around your home, it is a good idea to identify the ant species right away because carpenter ants and termites (which look like winged ants), can cause significant damage to homes and other buildings. The presence of winged ants indicates they are attempting to extend their populations, and if it is a harmful species, it can potentially cause damage or bring on even more damage.
Effective Ant Control
One positive aspect of swarming is that it can help you locate an ant nest to enable more effective control and elimination. The most effective methods of control for ants include baiting along trails where ants have been seen and direct nest application with a properly labeled insecticide.
In general, leave swarming ants alone. Control of flying ants is necessary only if outdoor ants are causing a problem or if flying ants are found inside the home. Although it is possible that an ant (or two) is indoors because it lost its way during mating. If you see indoor trails, then baits are your most effective option for control of ants. Insecticidal spraying of trailing ants is never recommended, as this kills only the worker ants that are contacted, it does not eliminate the breeding queen or colony.
The life of an ant starts with an egg. If the egg is fertilized, the ant will be female; if not, it will be male. Ants are holometabolous (a specific kind of insect development which includes four life stages) and develop by complete metamorphosis, passing through larval and pupal stages before they become adults.
Diagram of ant larvae
The larval stage is particularly helpless – for instance it lacks legs entirely – and cannot care for itself. The difference between queens and workers (which are both female), and between different castes of workers when they exist, is determined by feeding in the larval stage. Food is given to the larvae by a process called ‘trophallaxis’ in which an ant regurgitates food previously held in its crop for communal storage. This is also how adults distribute food amongst themselves.
Larvae and pupae need to be kept at fairly constant temperatures to ensure proper development, and so are often moved around various brood chambers within the colony.
A new worker spends the first few days of its adult life caring for the queen and young. After that it graduates to digging and other nest work, and then to foraging and defense of the nest. These changes are fairly abrupt and define what are called temporal castes.
One theory of why this occurs is because foraging has a high death rate, so ants only participate in it when they are older and closer to death anyway. In a few ants there are also physical castes – workers come in a spectrum of sizes, called minor, median, and major workers, the latter beginning foraging sooner.
Often the larger ants will have disproportionately larger heads and so will have stronger mandibles. Such individuals are sometimes called ‘soldier’ ants because their stronger mandibles make them more effective in fighting other creatures, although they are still in fact worker ants and their ‘duties’ typically do not vary greatly from the minor or median workers. In a few species the median workers have disappeared, creating a sharp divide and clear physical difference between the minors and majors.
Most of the common ant species breed in the same way. Only the Queen and breeding females have the ability to mate. Some ant nests have multiple queens. The male ants, called drones, along with the breeding females are born with wings and do nothing throughout their life except eat, until the time for mating comes.
At this time, all breeding ants, excluding the queen, are carried outside where other colonies of similar species are doing the same. Then, all the winged breeding ants take flight. Mating occurs in flight and the males die shortly afterward. The females that survive land and seek a suitable place to begin a colony. There, they break off their own wings and begin to lay eggs, which they care for.
The first workers to hatch are weak and smaller than later workers, but they begin to serve the colony immediately. They enlarge the nest, forage for food and care for the other eggs. This is how most new colonies start.
Worker ants are sterile (do not breed), therefore their jobs are to look for food, protect the eggs, take care of the young, and defend the nest from unwanted visitors. During the night, the worker ants move the eggs and the larvae deep into the nest to protect them from the cold. During the daytime, the worker ants move the eggs and larvae of the colony to the top of the nest so that they can be warmer.
If a worker ant finds a good source of food, it leaves a trail of scent so that the other ants in the colony can find the food. Army Ants are nomadic and they are always moving. They carry their larvae and their eggs with them in a long trail.
Ant Life Span
The average life expectancy of an ant is 45 – 60 days.