"The Ants Go Marching Two by
Two, Hurrah, Hurrah"
Ants are very common insects. So common, that many scientists consider
ants to be the most successful of all insects. In fact, if you just count
number of individuals, ants outnumber most other terrestrial animals.
Ants live in colonies that vary greatly in size, from a few dozen to
thousands of individuals. Ants are social insects, and colonies have at
least three castes. These castes are queens, males and workers. The workers
are sterile, wingless females and are the ants most people encounter,
since they look for food outside of the nest.
Male and female ants have wings used for mating flights. The queen also
uses her wings to fly to new nest locations. Once the queen establishes
a new nest, she chews off her wings. They are of no value in a new home.
The wing muscles are absorbed to provide energy for the queen to start
laying eggs. In addition, the bulky wings just get in the way in the close
confines of a nest. The queen, like a human bride, finds that her wedding
dress is not functional attire for raising a family.
Ants exhibit a wide range of lifestyles. Some are carnivores. They feed
on the flesh of other animals, either living or dead. Army ants exhibit
such feeding behavior. These ants are mostly tropical. They are nomadic
and travel in distinct armies. Like raiding armies on the move, no animal
life is safe as they sweep across the countryside.
The carnivorous habit of ants includes feeding on other species of ants.
This leads to furious battles between nests of ants. One battle was recorded
by Henry David Thoreau in his story, "The Battle of the Ants." In this
story, Thoreau chronicles a battle between a group of black ants and smaller
red ants. He appropriately compares the fighting to legendary battles
in Greek mythology.
Many species of ants feed on sap, nectar or honeydew. All of these substances
are high in sugar and are prized by ants as a food. It is for this reason
that some species of ants actually farm aphids. These ants collect honeydew
produced by the aphids. Aphids are sometimes called ant's cows. The ants
protect the aphids from predators and even move their "cows" to greener
pastures when necessary. A few species of ants also store aphid eggs in
their nests during the winter.
There are ants known as harvester ants. The name is based on the fact
that these ants harvest seeds, which are stored in the nest as a food
resource. Other ants actually produce food. These ants are known as leaf
cutter ants. The ants harvest leaves and bring them into their nest. They
do not feed on the leaves, though. The ants start growing fungus on the
leaves in chambers known as fungus gardens. The fungus is consumed as
One interesting food storage habit of ants involves using living ants
as storage tanks. These ants are known as honey ants. Some individual
ants serve as reservoirs for the honeydew collected by other workers.
These ants, known as repletes, hang from the roots of the nest chambers
filled with honeydew. When other ants need honeydew, they stroke the mandibles
of the replete, which prompts the living storage tank to regurgitate some
of the sweet liquid.
A well-publicized habit of ants is that some species utilize other species
of ants as slaves. A few species of ants are entirely dependent on slaves.
The process varies some, but frequently involves a queen moving into another
species of ant nest and killing the resident queen. The nest workers then
adopt the new queen and take up the duty of rearing her offspring. These
workers then make raids on other ant nests, where they kill the workers
and bring back the pupae to rear as slaves.
So, when the ants go marching two by two, as the old children's song
recounts, those ants are on a mission. It could be to harvest seeds, milk
cows, battle with neighbors or even capture slaves. Who said insects sometimes
behave like humans?