What’s an ant colony?
Ant colony is a term used to describe two different but equal things. First of all, an ant colony is the physical place where most ants live, interact, and work together. Ant colonies are usually found in the wild, and it’s where most ants are born and eventually die. They are often located underground or, at least, hidden somewhere, like behind or under a rock.
On the other hand, an ant colony is also a term used to describe all ants that live in a physical location together and share certain traits that will make them related, like, for example, pheromone scent. Ants are highly social insects and work as a hive mind (i.e., they all work together to keep the colony alive, no matter what.)
Even though there are different species of ants, if one ant leaves its colony and somehow finds its way into another one, it will be more likely rejected and killed. This happens because the lost ant doesn’t share the same pheromone scent as the ants from the second colony do, regardless of their species.
Most colonies have their own pheromone scent; sometimes an ant queen will be born in one colony, travel far away and start her own – and her new colony will develop a different scent.
Different ant colonies can and will engage in battle against each other for territory, food sources, and for no reason at all other than having crossed paths. There are special situations where ant colonies work together and eventually become one supercolony, but this isn’t the most common scenario.
An ant colony shouldn’t be confused with an ant farm – the first is found in the wild, in their natural state; the latter is kept indoors by scientists and ant enthusiasts.
How many ants live in each colony?
It depends on a lot of factors. When you think of colony size, you have to think about what ant species you are talking about, how old the colony is, and the weather – a colony’s population numbers can vary a lot depending on all three factors. Most of the time, ant colonies host somewhere between a hundred and thousands of ants.
There are over 12000 species of ants, and they can be found all over the world. However, there are five types of ants who are the most common. These five also showcase how different ant colony sizes can be.
Argentine ants (Linepithema humile): 10000 ants per colony.
Asian needle ant (Pachycondyla chinensis): 5700 ants per colony.
Carpenter ants (Camponotus): 3000 ants per colony.
Crazy ant (Paratrechina longicornis): 2000 ants per colony.
Field ant (Formica fusca): 500 ants per colony.
These numbers are average figures – ant colony size can vary, especially when winter starts. Several colonies can also work together and form a supercolony, with hundreds of thousands up to millions of ants working together. But this seldom happens; only 20 species out of 12000 have shown the ability to form supercolonies.
It was recently discovered that actual intercontinental mega colonies exist as well – several supercolonies spread throughout the world, all coming from the same starting point. This is not to say that billions of ants are working together on different continents, but rather, they all share the same pheromone scent and can recognize each other as members of the same colony.
What’s the largest ant colony in the world?
Argentine ants have the number one spot when it comes to average ant colony population, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise they hold the largest ant colony in the world.
Stretched throughout several countries in Europe, the biggest and largest ant colony of the world is 3700 miles long and comprised of billions of worker ants. There’s no way to calculate the exact number because of its sheer size.
This supercolony could happen because of a particular trait argentine ants have: they tend to help each other, regardless of their colony of birth. If one argentine ant recognizes another, they will help each other. This doesn’t happen between other ant species.
The southern European supercolony, the biggest of them all, has over 33 ant populations and millions of nests. If you exclude humans from the list, it is literally the biggest societal structure in the animal kingdom.
Do all ants live in colonies?
All ants live in their respective colony. There are several types of ants who never leave their colony – they are born, live, and die within their premises. Other types of ant leave the colony to find food sources (some of them you have probably seen around your house), and eventually, go back home.
A third type of ant, a new queen ant, will leave her colony forever, but only to start a colony of her own – usually, new queen ants will leave with several male ants to reproduce and thus, start the colony.
Whenever a queen ant is born, she has to leave or otherwise fight for the colony’s leadership. There are little to no cases where two queen ants coexist peacefully. Even though leaving the colony is extremely risky for an ant, a new queen’s best choice is to leave and seek to start a new home.
Simply put, most ants will stay within their colony, unless there’s a queen leaving to start another colony. Ants can also leave their colonies and get lost by mistake; nothing good will come from it – unless they can find their way back home.
Can an ant survive by itself?
Probably not. Most ants are social insects and they thrive within their colony and die away from it. Matter of fact, an ant’s reason to live is to exist within the colony and serve it. Without its colony, an ant is lost and doesn’t know what to do.
Whenever an ant gets lost, away from its colony, it has two options: find its old colony or risk finding a new one.
More often than not, ants won’t move far away from their colony and they seldom get lost. If they are far away, they have ways to retrace their steps. If for some reason, they cannot find their way back into their colony, all they can do is find a new one. This is a move that comes with a certain risk, as the new colony may not accept the ant and kill it in response.
How do ant colonies work?
For an ant colony to start, a female queen has to be born somewhere else and leave her colony. There can only be one queen per colony, and when a new queen is born, she will leave to create a colony of her own, alongside several male ants. Once the new colony is established, it will quickly grow its numbers until they reach a stable population; this number will vary according to each ant species. As the ant colony grows, different types of ant will be born, and each one will serve one specific purpose under the command of their queen.
Ant colonies have a hierarchical and solid social structure. The most important ant is the queen and without one, the ant colony will soon cease to exist. Besides the queen ant, there are other ants who serve a distinct purpose within the colony. Male ants live a short life, one where the only purpose is to reproduce, soon followed by death – most male ants live for less than a month. Female ants are born sterile, and they are better known as “worker ants”. They will tend the eggs and larvae, dig tunnels to expand the colony, or leave it altogether to find food for everyone to eat.
How long can ant colonies last?
Ant colonies need two things to survive: their queen and food. As long as an ant colony has enough food to feed its population, it will continue to move forward. Because ants have a short lifespan, they need a queen to continually reproduce and replace the colony’s ever-changing population. Without a queen, an ant colony will only last for a couple of months.
Luckily for most ant colonies, queen ants can survive for up to 30 years. And even if they die, either prematurely or from natural causes, another queen can replace her – but finding a replacement can be hard, sometimes close to impossible. Because of that, many believe that once the queen is dead, so is the colony.
Other cases, besides a queen’s death or food shortages, can decimate an ant colony. For example, man-made intervention. Ant colonies will significantly drop their number during winter – oftentimes up to the point of disappearing.
Do the number of ants in colonies change over winter?
Ants have cold blood. If temperatures fall under 75F, they can freeze to death out in the open. Fortunately for them, ants usually hibernate or go into hiding during winter. Most ants are able to survive winter, but we often think they all have disappeared – because they hide underground or wherever it’s warm. This is not to say ant population doesn’t suffer during winter, it absolutely does – but not as much as we think.
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