Top 10 Strange Ant Behaviours That You Did Not Know Of

Zombies, slaves, queens, and what not! These strange ant behaviours will surely surprise you!
Ants are social insects we have all encountered at some point in life. Sure, they are the pests in the house and having them around can be frustrating. But regardless of the annoyance, ants can be very fascinating. Did you know ants are one of the longest living animal species on earth? And are almost as old as dinosaurs! And did you know ants are the only non-mammals that are known to engage in interactive teaching and learning?  
These small six-legged colonisers can thrive almost anywhere, except Antarctica. They may be seemingly simple, but ants showcase one of the most coordinated and methodical behaviours in the animal kingdom. Here are some of the strangest ant behaviours:

1. Each Ant Colony Has Guidelines That All Must Follow

The term 'ant colony' refers to the physical household of ants and the set of social rules they live by. While ant hills are familiar sights, that’s not all. Ant colonies can stretch underground up to 25 to 30 feet. When scientists studied these colonies microscopically, they noticed that there are a bunch of rules and regulations that all ants must follow. Inside the colony, the distribution of ants is not random. For example, nurse ants are found deep inside the nest, while forager ants live closer to the surface. The entire colony uses various mechanisms including pheromone signatures and trails, path integration, and magnetic sensing. Stigmergy, a type of swarm intelligence, helps ants follow long-range interactions and keep their homes super-organised. 

2. Queen Ants Control The Sex Of The Offspring

Each ant colony has a queen whose only job is reproduction. Over the period of her life, the mating period is only a brief one. During this time, she will copulate with several males. Beyond the mating period, queen ant will never mate again. Instead, she will store the sperm in a pouch called spermatheca that is located at the tip of her abdomen. The sperm will now remain immobile till she allows the fertilisation of eggs. Fertilised eggs produce females while unfertilised eggs make males whose sole purpose is to fertilise a virgin queen. It’s the queen who, by secreting a certain chemical, decides the wing development in the female larvae. The newborn female ants are either wingless workers or reproductive queens with wings. And virgin queens are given birth only when there are enough worker ants. 

3. Some Ants Enslave Other Ants

Polyergus lucidus is a type of ant species that are known to enslave other ants. These ants are holoparasites, meaning they cannot sustain themselves without exploiting a suitable host. These ants oppress another ant species, without the slaves ever knowing, to sustain their own colonies. Also called the Slavemaking Ants, these colonies strictly breed ants for the purpose of going out and enslaving other ants. Two of the most common tactics employed include getting hold of an ant colony, killing their queen, and replacing it with one of their own, and the second one including stealing the eggs from another ant colony and bringing it into their own colonies. A typical colony of slave ants will have more than double the number of ants working as slaves. The job of the slave ants is to gather food, feed the hosts, groom and take care of the queen and defend the colony.  

4. Ants Store Fat In Their Bodies For Other Ants To Use

As strange as it may sound if an ant is carrying extra calories, it is most likely she is storing it for her nestmates. Some ants have a sort of social stomach that is separate from their own digestive stomach. When an ant eats and her nutritional needs are met, she will store the rest of the food as an ‘extra.’ Say a second ant is in need of food, she will then signal the first cat in ant language and let the first ant know that she is hungry. The first ant will then spit out some of the extra food for the second ant to eat. Since ants do not have any other food storage facilities, this is the best way they can store food when they are on the move.

5. Ants Weave Living Life Rafts To Survive Floods

Surviving waterfloods has been a very crucial part of ant evolution. Imagine hundreds of ant colonies underground, and when it rains and floods! Since an ant’s body is heavier than water, they are going to sink. But scientists noticed that not only ants float, they also cling together to form a raft. They were finally able to solve this puzzle. It turns out ants are waterproof! Ants create a sort of fabric around their bodies by biting and grabbing one another. This fabric is so tightly formed that the hair on the ant's body helps trap tiny air bubbles. These air bubbles help them stay afloat. 

6. Ants Build Super Colonies That Can Cover Hundreds Of Acres Of Land

Over the years, scientists have discovered many ant supercolonies on all continents with an exception of Antarctica. Depicts being hundreds of kilometres away from one another, ants have found ways to link two colonies via a series of underground tunnels. Each of these colonies has its own queen and together they all work for the betterment of ants’ future. Some of the biggest ant colonies ever discovered includes the Hokkaido Ant Colony with more than 45,000 nests covering 670 acres of land, Californian Large that spread over 560 miles along the coast of California, and a supercolony of Argentine Ants in Southern Europe that stretched over 3,600 miles. 

7. Some Ant Colonies Can Be A Threat To Humans

Particularly, the carpenter ant colonies and the fire ant colonies. They are considered dangerous, especially because it is very difficult to get rid of these ants. It can sometimes take as much as 5 years to completely get rid of these ant colonies. Carpenter Ants infest wood structures. In case you are bitten by a Carpenter Ant, expect pain with sharp pinches and a resultant pea-sized blemish. When Fire Ant mounds are disturbed, the attack will be en masse. This can result in multiple sting wounds to humans. Their bites contain venom that can bring welts or pustules if not treated on time. 

8. Ants Can Turn Into Zombies!

This is perhaps the strangest ant behaviour but ants can turn into zombies, courtesy of a spectacularly clever fungus. A fungus called Ophiocordyceps is known to hijack ants’ muscles thus making them go limp. When the fungus attacks, it punctures tiny holes in ant muscles thus cutting off the nerve communication with the brain. But this fungus does not touch an ant’s brain, essentially leaving it alive, but dead. In about three weeks, the fungus will multiply making up to half the ant’s body weight. At this stage, the fungus takes over the ant thus making the ant do crazy stuff - like sabotaging its own ant colony. In the following weeks, the fungus will continue to grow and eventually take control of the ant's mouth. About 6 hours later, the ant perishes. 

9. Boss Lady In The House

Ants follow a strict hierarchy. The purpose of an ant’s life is determined at the larval stage, and depending on the care and nourishment she received during this time period determines her role in the ant society. The ones who get the most care turn into queen ants and the ones who don’t live life as worker/soldier ants. Male ants are considered useless beyond the mating season. The hierarchy, from top to bottom, is usually as follows:
First of all, the queen is the boss - a winged adult and a sexually mature ant. Her sole purpose is to lay as many eggs as possible. Then come caretakers of the queen who are also soon-to-be queens. These ants are the provider of care and nourishment to the queen ants. The workers and soldiers ants come next. Ants that grow bigger usually take up the job as soldiers - fending off danger and protecting the nest. And the worker ants can take up one or many jobs including scavenging for resources, feeding the queen and disposing of her waste, building the colony, and many such. 

10. Ants Can Be Farmers

Besides humans, ants are the only creatures that practice agriculture. Millions of years even before humans arose as species, ants began farming. Years of studies have concluded that Leafcutter Ants have adopted an agrarian lifestyle. These ants are known to exclusively feed on fungus that they actively seek and cultivate. In exchange for honeydew, some ants are also known to protect and shelter aphids. 

Yeah, these ant behaviours are really weird. But should we be scared of their super strength and psychic powers? What do you guys think?

Aaditee Kulkarni

Aaditee Kulkarni

Jeevoka member since Aug 2020