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Thread: All you ever wanted to know about ants...

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That's interesting gnampie! Cool Smilie Questions:

1) Do the new queens replace the old ones, and rule the colony when the old ones die?
2) How long do the queens live for anyway?
3) How do the ants mate - animal style, or do the males just fertilise the eggs like fish do?
4) What's the lifespan of worker ants?
5) What's the difference between worker ants and soldier ants?
6) How can the worker ants have offspings when they're sterile?

[Edited on 5/3/2002 by Ungoliant]
Well I studied ants for only one year, but I will try to be a complete as possible. Eryan correct me if I'm wrong.

1) some species have more than one queen and it is possible young queens enter their old colony. This is cheap for them because the colony already exist, but there will be a lot of fighting between the 'old' queens and the new ones. There is some kind of hierarchy between the queens and when a new queen enters this hierarchy has to be established again.
2) I think it depends on the species. We had a colony of leafcutter ants in the lab and that queen was several years old
3) there is some kind of penetration and the genetic material of the male(s) is stored in a special structure (organ) called the spermatheca
4) workers live shorter than queens, but again I think it depends on the species (I thought they lived less than a year)
5) soldiers are workers too. There are differend sorts of workers. Some take care of the eggs, some do nest maintenance, some go foraging for food and others are soldiers. In some species worker ants are less specific and are morphologically alike. These workers are able to switch tasks.
I don't kill ants or spiders out of hand; only if they become a nuisence. Haven't firebombed an ant hill for fifty years. But I do eat dead cow, chicken, and pig; however, I draw the line at horse, dog, and human. Big Smile Smilie
Did you know a worker ant is more related to her sisters than to her own offspring?
6) How can the worker ants have offspring when they're sterile?
Come on Gnampie, answer Ungoliants question which is also mine, or else clarify your statement. As it stands it is a contradiction.

Nevertheless, the social workings of hills (ants) and hives (bees) are very interesting. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of ants with us. Smile Smilie
When I left the forum yesterday there was no question 6 yet. Here is the answer:

The ovaries of the workers do not develop because the reproductive ants use pheromones (chemical substances) to prevent that. In some species this is reversable. When you take the queens away, the ovaries of the workers will start to develop. When the ovaries are functional the workers can start to reproduce males (because they develop out of unfertilised eggs). There will be a lot of fighting between the workers and the dominant ones will be able to mate. In this case, when a worker is able to mate and can reproduce both female and male ants, the worker is called a gamergate (there are often more than one in one colony). This gamergate produces those chemical substances again to controle the development of the other workers ovaries.
So now you can ask the question why do the workers stay in that colony in stead of walking out and start one of their own. Well they have 75% (if the queen or gamergate mate with only one male) of their genetic material in common with their sisters and only 50% with their own offspring. So to make sure their genes will survive it is better for them to stay in the colony and take care of the eggs of their mother then to produce eggs of their own. Of course when there are several queens or gamergates which mated with more than one male the relatedness between the sisters will be less than 75%. This will lead to a lot of tention in the colony so there is a need for other contole mechanisms (like chemical substances). But there are lots of theories and a lot of research about this topic.
Ant question: Is it true that the Australian bull-ant is the most formidable stinging ant in the world? What about those African Soldier ants?

(I am asking to settle an argument with someone I know who considers himself something of an ameteur ant expert)

just curious, is a gnampie a type of ant? Big Smile Smilie Wink Smilie
Well, I don't know about Australian bull-ants, but they always told me the sting of fire-ants is one of the worst.
If I remember well, African Soldier ants don't sting but bite. At the lab where I worked they told me if a moving colony of those ants comes across a sick small cow or goat they would kill it and eat it. But maybe that is a bit exaggerated. Wink Smilie

Well, I'm unmasked! Big Smile Smilie
The ants we studied are called Gnamptogenys. We named them 'the Gnampies'. So it's kind of a nickname.
Well I never!
It seems that being a Tolkien fan may be correlated with being an ant lover!!!
A pity that Tolkien himself devoted so much place in his books to Ents and so little place to ants Big Smile Smilie
Unfortunately I have a busy evening and I can't stay here talking about ants... this is a never-ending story... I will only say that Australian bulldog ants of the genus Myrmecia are simply fascinating. But they are dangerous, especially for allergics. I was told that each year their stings kill more people in Australia than venomous snakes. I was once stung by a Myrmecia and it was painful, but nothing very very bad happened to me, so I must not be an allergic! Wink Smilie
Thanks for the wonderful clarification Gnampie. Boy the world is a lot more complex now than when I went to school. Smile Smilie
Thanks for the answers, gnampie! Cool Smilie

Are Myrmecias (Myrmeci?) those great big bronze/reddish ants that give out a funny smell when they're squished? I ran into some when we were surveying a pipeline route through the jungles of Borneo. Horrible vicious stingy things....difficult to brush off, unlike their gentler black cousins. I've seen two types of reds - the huge ones and the really cute tiny red ants (until you feel their bite, that is).

We had a fire-ant outbreak in Sydney recently. The postAuthorIDities were frantically trying to destroy them all before they spread. I had no idea they could bite / sting.

Did anyone hear if they killed them all or not? Hope I dont find them in my backyard if they can sting worse than bull-ants!
I do not think that you may have met the Myrmecia ants (= bull ants, or bulldog ants) on Borneo. But I must check.
These fire ants in Sydney... were they Solenopsis invicta? I had no idea that you have that intruduced species in Australia!
If so, they may be dangerous. They were known to kill drunken people which happened to fall near their nests.
No I do not think that they can sting worse that bull-ants, bull-ants (or bulldog-ants) seem to be more dangerous. But both of them are to be avoided if you do not know how to handle them!
Anyway, it is very important to avoid to disturb them and (worst) to squeeze them. A squeezed ant is a source of alarm substances attracting other ants and inducing in them nasty aggressive mood!
More about ants for tomorrow...[Edited on 7/3/2002 by Eryan]
I do not think that you may have met the Myrmecia ants (= bull ants, or bulldog ants) on Borneo. But I must check.

Oh, ok then. I don't think they're the Solenopsis invicta though since they nest in trees, not on the ground. And I did squeeze several, that must be why more ants kept coming to our campsite.
Ooooh! Anticide. Sad Smilie If you must, and I mean 'with great necessity' destroy an anthill, gasoline is a much more efficient way of doing it than dynamite. With the latter, you spread the little blighters all over the countryside, and those not killed by the concussion aren't going to be happy campers. With gasoline, which you light after pouring it into the hill, not many get away as they try to bodily put out the conflagration. Neither method can be said to be environmentally friendly, and as such, this correspondent can not recommend using either. :P
Whats the best way to kill fire ants - douse their hill in gasoline and set on fire or blow up the ant hill with tnt?
Actually, my father, a proffesional gardener and bulldog ant hater for some years recommends petrol as a good ant killer. But dont light it! (or enhale the fumes or do anything else dangerous). The chemical apparently invades the ants pores and kills them that way. Quickly.

Correct me if this is wrong gnampie, eryan?
Ah, anticide, a sad & touchy topic!
But that's it... I'm now fairly habituated that every time we speak about ants, sooner or later it comes to it.
I once participated in a radio talk on ants and had , among other, to answer phone calls about them. And I had a call from a lady who had great problems with the common small black ant Lasius niger. She told me that she tried to use a wide spectre of ant killing methods, among others, pouring boiling water into their nests.
It sounds like a horrible cruelty, but, actually, killing insects (and other small invertebrates) with boiling water is recommended as one of the most humane methods of their killing. Another recommended method is to freeze them alive. It was even sort of proved that ants subjected to freezing alive do not suffer. If they are put to sleep with carbon dioxide, they are stressed: we know that because if we analyse chemical substances left by them on the walls of the container in which they were kept, we usually find plenty of alarm pheromones which means that they WERE alarmed, to the degree that they tried to summon their nestmates. In contrast, if you are freezing them alive, they just calmly fall asleep and they do not release alarm pheromones.
It is counterintuitive, but squeezing is NOT really a good method! It is very difficult to destroy the head and the brain (it's very hard) and a head separated from the rest of the body can live on during quite a long while... hours...
So returning to the lady who had black ant problem, I was quite sympathetic when listening to her story and in particular I did NOT brand her as a cruel monster (she was not!).
Unfortunately, that radio talk was heard by my two elderly colleagues who get very indignant about it and then on a scientific meeting they said (very seriously) that they must report a great shame: one of their colleagues (they won't even mention the name... it's so shameful!...) publicly recommended cruelty to animals in a radio talk!!!!
"PLease name some animal" they told accusatingly to the audience. "Horse" said one of the persons present on that meeting. "Well, what would you think about a person who during a radio talk listens calmly when somebody is telling that he ws trying to kill a horse by pouring boiling water on it? Can you imagine that that person said nothing to brand that abominable cruelty?".
You can imagine how I felt, I really didn't know whether to laugh wildly or to take the matter seriously and try to explain all... Finally I decided that the whole situation is so grotesque that it's better not to answer in any way. I only hope that these two ant lovers will never ever read this Forum because your stories of gasoline and dynamite would shock them even more!!!

How sad to hear that you have such problems with bull ants that your father is a bull ant hater! I am a bull ant lover and I'd give a lot to have a bull ant colony and to be able to study them. It's may secret dream since a long time - but Australia is so far away...
Bull ants are fierce and dangerous, but they are without any doubt the most interesting ants I worked with. I had once a small colony of the large bull ant Myrmecia nigriceps where each of 20 individuals was marked individually and I could follow their behaviour on individual level. It was simply fascinating. Each ant was different!
And they are the only ants which can make an eye contact with the observer! It is really uncanny to see a bull ant guarding the entrance of its atrificial nest and actually LOOKING YOU in the eyes!
I use a big bottle of bleach and pour it down every hole I can see to kill off the little blighters. Though I used to use a magnifying glass and the sun for entertainment value, and lighter fuel and a match just for a giggle. I'm none too keen on them I'm afraid gnampie, except for the cartoon ones in movies Wink Smilie

Bulldog ants can look at you? I will check that out next time I encounter one, although strangely I don't know the location of any nests. Sure I could find one in the local reserve though.

Sorry if we seem barbaric to you with killing methods - but with young children running around, sometimes we have to take drastic preventitive action. I dont think the speicies is in any danger of extincion though!
Oh, Eryan, your headless Ant comment reminds me of that scene from "Antz" where the Danny Glover ant (who is just a head now) asks how bad his wound is... LOL - too too funny...

anyway - we in Texas have a very bad fire ant problem. We have a yearly contest for the "biggest fire ant hill" and the winner gets free pest controll for a year. We aren't supposed to use gasoline, but we do anyway, it's the only way to kill the entire ant hill - and when you have toddlers running around in your yard (or school yard) it is very important it be fire ant free! The fire ants here have almost killed off the native ant species and there's really nothing we can do about it! They are just too efficient and aggressive! :o
Well, how to kill or get ridd of ants was one of the first questions I expected to get. I was very happy we got some other questions first.

I don't like the idea of killing ants either, but I guess there is a difference between just killing them because they annoy you or killing ants as a form of pest controle. But if we must destroy an ant hill we might as well choose a less painful way. When you destroy a colony, you always have to make sure you get the queen(s) and the eggs as well.

But try to let them live if you can. They are really usefull.

So, anything else you want to know?
Still some remarks about ant biology...
(1) Ant colonies. Gnampie described you a "classical" picture of an ant colony, founded by a single queen and composed of her offspring, female workers, very closely realted to each others. The queen is able to produce both females, workers and new queens (from fertilized eggs) - and males (from unfertilized eggs). Workers cannot reproduce because they are inhibited by the queen.
Well, actually in the case of many ant species this simple picture is no more true.
In many species not only the female, but also workers can reproduce. Usually these workers lay unfertilized eggs and produce males. In some ant species a very large part of males is produced by workers and not by a queen!
Even more interestingly, in several ant species workers can also lay unfertilized eggs and produce NEW WORKERS! Thus a colony does not really need a queen to be immortal! This is also true in the case of one subspecies of honey bee - Apis mellifera capensis from South Africa. Here the workers can produce other workers and the colony is potentially immortal even if the queen dies! Why on Earth only one honeybee subspecies is able to do this? Nobody knows...
As already told by Gnampie, in some ant species each colony has many queens. And the colonies can be huge! As far as I know, the largest ever ant colony was found in Japan (on the Ishikari coast of Hokkaido) and it was composed of 306 millions of workers and more than one million (!!!) of queens living in 45 thousands of interconnected nests!
As for the need of killing ants... I understand it of course but anyway I like them and in my lab I avoid to kill them - after the end of the experiments they are usually considered as "retired" and can "iive happily ever after". And thanks to that "gentle treatment" I could gather rather interesting data on worker longevity. Not only ant queens, but also workers may be surprisingly long-lived - I myself had individuals surviving more than 2 years! When we compare this with 6 weeks life of worker honeybees... it's a difference!
Well, ants are like Eldar, and honeybees like Edain... and actually ants evolved earlier than honeybees, so they are really the Firstborn, and the bees are the Secondborn!
Wink Smilie
when you will go and have a look on bull ants, MAKE ATTENTION please, do not let them jump on you!!! I was looking them "into their eyes" but they were kept in a glass-roofed nest!!!
I can imagine how beastly are the fire ants; anyway they are for me the most fascinating beings living on this planet (except humans). More about them next time...i
I personally (being a gardener at heart - but not having the ability to practice for 2 years now... but you should have seen my garden 3 years ago! sigh) like ants, they kill destructive bugs and keep them at bay - but Fire ants are just too aggressive. I can't manage with them. They leave long lasting bites and allergic reactions here in Texas are getting more and more common. We had introdduced here a fly that lays it's eggs on fire ants and the larva eats them up (or something like that). This has helped keep the fire ant population from exploding, but I bet you have no idea how MANY fire ants there are here... it's incredible. Sad Smilie
I can imagine that they are nassssty. But they are fascinating just because they are so astonishingly successful.
I will tell you some astonishing things about them on some other day... it's along story but a breathtaking one!
Eryan, thank you for the more detailed explanation. Glad to have you around to help me out. My knowledge of ants is a bit rudimentary. I will learn a lot here. Workers that can reproduce other workers out of unfertilised eggs? How do they do that? Are these new workers not diplo’d then?
Yes - the new workers produced by workers of some ant species ARE diploid!
This form of parthenogenesis is called the thelytoky. The ants are able to produce diploid unfertilised eggs!
This phenomenon was first described in Cataglyphis piliscapa (former Cataglyphis cursor) - an ant species quite common in the Mediterranean area, and then in several other species: Pristomyrmex pungens, Cerapachys biroi, Platythyrea punctata and in the harvesting ants Messor capitatus (another common Mediterranean ants species). You will perhaps be surprised, but the postAuthorIDs of the paper on thelytokous worker reproduction in Messor capitatus (published in 2000) are Donato Grasso (do you know him? A very nice person!), T. Wenseelers (YES!), A. Mori, F. Le Moli and Johan Billen (YES YES!).
This type of reproduction is known in other insects, too. It was also described in one honeybee subspecies, the South African obe, Apis mellifera capensis. Why on earth other honeybee subspecies cannot reproduce in such a way remains a mystery!
And...this is not the end of the story! Thelytoky is also present in some parasitoid wasps... and it has been demonstrated that it is caused... by the infection of the maternally transmitted bacterium Wolbachia! It's really astonishing that the infection may influence so profoundly the life history of a species.
When the importance of Wolbachia in triggering thelytoky in wasps became known, ant students tested a hypothesis that ant thelytoky also is caused by Wolbachia infection. But, unlike as in wasps, ant thelytoky is NOT related to that factor - at least not in the case of the harvesting ants Messor capitatus!
The biology of social insects is really VERY complicated - they are the real Aliens you may study here on this Earth without the need to travel through Ilmen to another planet!
[Edited on 12/3/2002 by Eryan]
I'm not too keen on ants either, I'm afraid. But I only kill them when they come into the house, cos they tend to stay in and reproduce. (which I'm not very fond of)
You should have seen a starting colony with a large queen and small workers her daughters, and how they all care for their younger offspring, how very gentle and concerned they are... it's almost as sweet a view as a she-cat with her kitten!Smile Smilie
Only you need a microscope to see it properly. :P
Well, that depends on the size of the ants.
Some can be rather big (of course it's still no big deal compared with cats)
No Tommy, a microscope would be too smallifying, just like the Hubble Space Telescope would be to largefying. What is needed is a maggot-frying lens and a little direct sunlight. :angel :grin

No Grondy, you promised to be kinder to our many legged little friends, so make that diffuse sunlight. :boring
Grondy, how cruel! :0

A little more respect for our small 6-legged friends here! Smile Smilie

Did any of you ever saw the movie 'Microcosmos'?

Some people are even studying ants, trying to understand how they manage to build such an efficient society, to improve our society. They even use studies of ants behaviour to make robots interact with each other. Their 'social structure' is quite advanced.
Ants are really fascinating and sweet if you know how to tell what is their "mood" from their movements and postures. They have not facial muscles - they are imprisoned in their exosceletons like knights in their armour - so they seem to uninitiated humans to be like robots, like lifeless zombies. But they signal very clearly whta goes on inside them by postures and by movements. An angry ant is opening its mandibles in a threatening way and curves her abdomen forward, like a dog thrusting his tail between his legs, ready to sting the opponent or to spray it with the formic acid. A submissive ant withdraws backwards its antennae and makes herself as small and as flat as possible... A hungry ant can beg for food in really expressive way, stimulating her nestmates with antennae and forelegs...
Ants are Evil, pure and simple. If you've ever seen phase IV then you'll know what I mean. :0
Plastic, I have no idea what you are talking about!
What is phase IV?
Yes, and this is not really new! The same phenomenon is well known in other ant species as well, for instance in the fire ants Solenopsis invicta. For me it is the most fascinating issue in modern ethology and sociobilogy. I have no time today to tell you more about it but I'll do that gladly on another day. All that issue has tremendous implications for our thinking about the "struggle for life" and (IMHO) for our human ethics as well.
It's a really great sci-fi movie about an ant research lab, where the ants kill pretty much everybody by evolving quicker than the Borg.
I read in the paper this morning that the Mediterranean coast has a supercolony of Argentine ants that stretches from Spain to Italy. And that they have used game theory to evolve away from the warfare of the kin selection theory. They have become so successful because instead of fighting one another to the death, like they do in the Argentine, the residents from the different nests cooperate and share. Cool Smilie
Ants. Not a subject I expected to find on a Tolkien forum, but interesting nonetheless. Thanks Gnampie, Eryan.

I can understand how in a haplo/diploid colony the altruistic behaviour of the female workers comes about because as you say, they are more closely related to their sisters than to their own offspring. This doesn't explain why Termites exhibit the same altruistic behaviour, however. Having a permenant king within the colony, they are not haplo/diploid (or am I wrong here?) What mechanism do they have to keep the colony together?
Gnampie: Yes I saw Microcosmos (it's a Belgian film, or a French one, right?). We watched it at school. That's probably another reason why I don't like it, part from not really feeling anything for insects. Very Big Grin Smilie
Thanks for your interest Valedhelgwath!
The haplo/diploid-rule goes (in general) for all social insects, like ants, bees and termites.

Tommy, I think Microcosmos is a French movie.
I liked the way they showed how big small things can be for little insects, like raindrops.
Most people see insects like something creepy, dirty and insignificant, but have you ever tried to imagine how it must be like being an ant or a bee or a beetle? It's like a book actualy, you only have to imagine entering an other world. Life is fasinating!
I am sorry, Gnampie, but Valedhelgwath is right: termites are NOT haplo-diploidal, and their existence always caused a problem for the kin selectiontheory of altruism proposed by Hamilton.
And many insects are haplo-diploid and NOT social!
Actually, as revealed by molecular techniques, in many social insect colonies the nestmates are not close kin. In polygynous colonies they are daughters of many various queens and many various males. As admitted by Hamilton himself still in the eighties, kinship seems to play a much smaller role in the evolution of insect social life than originally thought!
Well I feel that I really must tell here more about astonishing social systems of fire ants but not today please! It is a long story!

[Edited on 30/4/2002 by Eryan]

[Edited on 30/4/2002 by Eryan]
Oops, sorry *blushing very deeply* Got The Blues Smilie
I forgot termites are Isoptera and not Hymenoptera *trying to save me with some expensive words* Tongue Smilie

Thanks Eryan for correcting my mistake.
Where would I be without you. Big Smile Smilie
Nowhere, I expect? Very Big Grin Smilie
Well Thank you Tom for your faith in me! :0:
"Thanks?" Gnampie & Eryan. Bleeding ants keep popping into my thoughts now because of you pair. I'm supposed to be monitering how many cockles are in the Wash, and my mind keeps wondering back to social Hymenoptera.
The reason I asked about termites, by the way, was because about 20 years ago I had to write an essay about social behaviour in insects, and back then I had problems explaining why termites should exhibit altruistic behaviour as strongly as a haplo-diploid species. I rather hoped that in those twenty years some of the mysteries would have been solved.
In the past week it's been bugging me (excuse the pun), so I rang up one of the universities that we deal with and asked some people there. The guys I know tend to specialise in marine topics rather than ants, but one of them suggested it might be due to the termites diet of wood. To digest it they need to have gut bacteria capable of digesting wood. These bacteria, he suggests might have to be contracted (like the flu etc), from other termites.
Could this be the answer? If it's not, at least have the decency to give me a convincing alternative (even if it's not true), before I go mad. Many thanks...

Ps. When one of them asked, I told him that Eryan was a Tolkien freak who tortured ants to death for a living. Was this correct?
Ps. When one of them asked, I told him that Eryan was a Tolkien freak who tortured ants to death for a living. Was this correct?
Wary Smilie Valedhelgwath, I suggest you wear your abestos underwear for a while, I expect Eryan to fire up her flame thrower and come after you. So Angry Smilie She is an ant admirer and I don't believe she likes to hear of her friends being tortured. Very Sad Smilie

(I'm the one who used to firebomb ant nests fifty years ago, but soon learned the folly of my actions, and haven't knowingly harmed any in the last four decades.)
And it's me who still does it for fun Animated Wink Smilie
Valedhelgwath (can't I just call you Val, much shorter to write), I only studied ants for a very short time so I am no expert about this and I even know less about termites, but I searched the internet a bit and this is what I found till now:

Accoring to Krebs and Davies (1993) there are two main reasons for the altruistic behaviour of termites:
1) cycles of inbreeding (mother - son or brother - sister) and outbreeding: this mechanism could lead to higher levels of relatedness, even higher as the 0.75
2) a high degree of linkage to sex chromosomes
(Krebs & Davies (1993). An introduction to behavioral ecology, 3rd ed. Blackwell Science)

According to others altruistic behaviour in termites occures due to self interest: the action benifits the individual and the group or workers turn group behaviour to their individual adventage, food, defence, nest building. After all their relatedness with their sisters (0.5) is as high as with their own offspring (0.5), because there is only one queen and one king. This is also related with a higher inclusive fitness, which is the individual fitness plus the fitness of the related individuals multiplied with the degree of relatedness.

The altruism of the workers can also exsist due to parental manipulation by the queen and king, often by means of pheromones given to the workers through trophallaxis (exchange of food).

I also found something about micro-symbiont charing: essential digestive components may only be available through direct transfer from parent to offspring after birth. This is true in the termites, whose young obtain cellulose-digesting bacteria from their parents through oral or proctodeal feeding. In other words, families must remain together for at least two overlapping generations.

That's all for now. If I find anything more, I will let you know.

And Plastic, leave those poor little animals alone for once!
It's no fair battle, such a small animal against such a big guy. Big Smile Smilie
Thank you Grampie for taking the time to cure me of this madness. Don't you find though, that the more you learn, the more you realise you don't know. I'm going to be doing some work on plankton movements around the Wash soon and I'm worried I'll just be opening a Pandora's box of problems.

Oh, and Eryan, please don't burn me. It was just your post about collecting alarm pheromones from the jars in which ants had had accidents with boiling water, CO2, etc that gave me the impression you were some way involved with that sort of research. I haven't done any work with insects myself, but I do agree that social insects, and ants in particular, are fascinating creatures. I'm not particularly keen on the individuals that find their way into my sugar bowl, but when you take the nest as a whole, they are amazing.
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