Ants are the most abundant insects in the world. You can find them in gardens, forests, and, somewhat annoyingly, inside our homes! While we often overlook them due to their size, there's so much more to these insects than meets the eye.
These tiny insects possess tremendous strength and can carry objects 50 times their size. As social animals, they follow a highly organized caste system. Besides their strength, these tiny wonders are also bright. Some species can farm to sustain themselves.
Moreover, they can hurt. Bullet Ants have the most painful sting out of all the insects. Read these fascinating ant facts, from exploding ants to stinking ants, read these fascinating ant facts to learn more about these super insects.
There's a reason ants are a symbol of strength. These tiny insects can carry objects up to 50 times their body weight. However, a new study suggests an even more surprising fact. Engineers from Ohio State University discovered that the neck of a common field ant can hold up to 5,000 times the ant's weight.
This impressive feat results from the ant's unique physiology, featuring a tough exoskeleton, specialized muscles, and a favorable muscle-to-weight ratio.
They use their impressive strength to gather food efficiently, which is often bigger than them, and build their complex nests. What's equally fascinating about an ant's strength is its skillful use of six legs and powerful mandibles.
When hoisting and transporting heavy loads, an ant's legs provide stability and support, evenly distributing the object's weight across its body. Their mandibles, or jaws, grasp and manipulate objects with incredible skill, letting ants handle items much larger than themselves.
Moreover, microscopic hairs on their legs and mandibles boost friction, ensuring a firm grip on the items they carry.
Related: Also, check out our list of the strongest animals.
Another interesting fact about ants is that they existed for as long as the dinosaurs. Ants arose during the Cretaceous period, and they eventually outlasted the dinosaurs thanks to their incredible adaptability and resilience.
The discovery of the ant fossil, Sphecomyrma freyi, in New Jersey's amber deposits, provides a window into the past, dating back around 92 million years. Through millions of years, ants have diversified into over 14,000 known species, expanding their habitats from the ground to trees and other elevated environments.
Different ant species, such as the remarkable Titanomyrma giganteum, the largest fossil ant species (with queens up to 6 cm long), have emerged and eventually gone extinct.
Ants thrive almost everywhere except Antarctica. They live in the Sahara Desert's scorching sands and the Amazon Basin's lush greenery. However, the extreme cold of Antarctica remains an insurmountable challenge for their survival.
These insects have developed particular adaptations to survive. For example, some species of ants, like the Arctic wood ant, produce antifreeze-like substances in their bodies, allowing them to withstand freezing temperatures in colder regions. In urban areas, invasive species like Argentine ants have adjusted to human environments, making cities their new home.
Did you know that ants are the most abundant insects on Earth? They contribute significantly to the animal biomass, comprising 10% to 15% in many habitats, especially tropical regions. That means they outweigh larger animals like birds, mammals, and reptiles combined7.
Moreover, over 14,000 species live worldwide, while an estimated 10,000 remain undiscovered. Remarkably, ants may also have a global population ranging from 10 to 100,000 trillion individuals. Ants are also particularly abundant in hot climates.
The most common ants are carpenter ants, odorous house ants, pavement ants, and the globally invasive Argentine ants. They come in various sizes, typically about 2 to 25 mm (0.08 to 1 inch).
Today's largest species of ants are the giant Amazonian ants which are 1.6 inches long. Consequently, the Argentine super colony is the world's largest recorded ant colony.
Have you ever wondered how ants communicate with each other? These social and clever insects use chemical signals called pheromones to talk to each other and work as a team.
Individual ants secrete these chemical messages. Since ants don't have ears, they use their antennae to detect these signals. These pheromones allow them to exchange information about their surroundings and the colony's status.
This intricate chemical communication system enables ants to coordinate activities, such as foraging, defense, and reproduction, revealing outstanding teamwork and efficiency—almost like humans using language and gestures.
Each pheromone type serves a specific purpose, and ants possess the remarkable ability to distinguish between these signals. For instance, when a forager ant stumbles upon a food source, it secretes a trail pheromone on its way back to the colony.
This scented path leads other ants toward the food. It's akin to a human leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for others to follow.
On the other hand, alarm pheromones function as warning signals. It alerts ants to potential dangers such as predators or intruders. These signals trigger a rapid and coordinated defense response, much like a human community banding together in times of crisis.
Furthermore, pheromones help ants maintain social order within the colony. Ants use them to recognize fellow nestmates and identify their positions, including workers, soldiers, and the queen.
Did you know that ants possess two stomachs? Their first stomach, the ventriculus – or the "digestive stomach" – breaks down the food they consume, fulfilling the ant's personal nutritional needs. Meanwhile, the second stomach, the social stomach or crop, functions as a storage system.
The unique dual-stomach system does not only benefit the individual ant but the whole ant colony. They share food stored in their social stomach with other colony members. To distribute this food, ants use a process called trophallaxis, which involves regurgitating food from the social stomach and feeding it to other colony members, like larvae, the queen, and non-foraging workers.
In doing so, ants ensure that all colony members receive the necessary nutrients. But trophallaxis isn't just about sharing food; it also serves as a means of communication. While exchanging food, ants transmit crucial information and pheromones to each other.
Ant colonies have at least one queen; for example, fire ant colonies usually have one queen. The queen's primary responsibility is to lay eggs.
They can lay millions of eggs during their lifetime, although the number varies between species. The princess ant mates just once in her life during a brief but essential mating flight. After this event, she leaves the nest and starts her colony.
As she transitions to being queen, she stores the collected sperm in a specialized organ called the spermatheca. This storage allows her to fertilize eggs for many years, even decades. By controlling the release of sperm from the spermatheca, the queen can selectively fertilize eggs, contributing to her colony's genetic diversity.
However, the queen ants are vital for reproduction and dictate the colony's survival. Studies found that when a queen dies, the rest of the colony follows after a few months.
The ants' unique caste system contributes to their impressive biodiversity. This social structure separates ants into distinct groups based on their functions: the queen, workers or soldiers, and drones. Each ant plays a specific role in ensuring the colony's survival and success.
The queen ant is the only reproductive female ant in the colony and usually has enormous wings. Drones are males whose sole purpose is to breed the queen; they die after mating.
All sterile female ants are either workers or soldiers. They are the most numerous in the colony. The female worker ants are responsible for all the work outside reproduction. They are responsible for foraging for food, caring for the queen, constructing and maintaining the nest, and caring for the young.
The soldier ants defend the colony from potential threats and are larger than the workers. They also possess powerful mandibles that come in handy during fights.
One of the most surprising facts about ants is their ability to farm. Specific species of ant, like the European red wood ant (Formica rufa) and the black garden ant (Lasius niger), have forged an incredible symbiotic relationship with the small plant-eating insects, aphids.
These ants have evolved into adept "farmers," taking care of their aphid "livestock" and reaping the benefits of the sweet, sugary honeydew that aphids produce while feeding on plant sap. These specific species of ants provide aphid colonies food, protect them from potential predators (like ladybugs and lacewings), and even build them protective structures.
On the other hand, the leafcutter ant, Atta cephalotes, cultivates the Lepiotaceae fungus to thrive. These ants forage for food and cut leaf sections to carry back to their nests. However, these leaves are not for consumption. Like farmers tending to their crops, these ants will put the leaf cargo into their fungal gardens.
The fungus will then live in these fresh leaves, becoming the leafcutters' primary food source for these species. Another interesting fact is that the leafcutter ants have symbiotic bacteria in their skin that help eradicate fungi pests.
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When crushed, the odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile) produces a pungent smell. Their smell reminds of blue cheese and rotten coconut, so they are also known as coconut ants.
These brownish-black ants are one of the tiniest ant species. They live in areas with enough moisture and are commonly found under rocks burrowing into the soil. They can also live under rugs and mats, so it's best to do regular house inspections.
It's not advisable to mess with ants, especially bullet ants. As their name suggests, the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) produces a sting similar to being shot by a bullet. The bullet ant is reddish black and lives in the tropical forests of Central and South America.
Large stingers and mandibles characterize the bullet ant. Just like most ants, they are not aggressive. However, bullet ants will sting when threatened. Also called a "24-hour ant" in Venezuela, this ant triggers excruciating pain lasting between 12-24 hours.
Another species, the red imported fire ants, also have painful bites. These ants are quite aggressive and generally attack when something disturbs their nests. Sting symptoms involve a burning and itching sensation, typically lasting approximately 60 minutes.
After about four hours, a small blister develops, followed by the formation of a white pustule within one to two days. In case of hypersensitivity to red imported fire ant stings, a person may experience a systemic allergic reaction.
Next on our ant facts list: Ants play a crucial role in seed dispersal for over 11,000 plant species. They participate in a fascinating symbiotic relationship known as myrmecochory5. In this process, ants collect seeds and carry them away from the parent plant, often transporting them to their nests or underground tunnels.
They bury the seeds in nutrient-rich soil, significantly increasing their chances of successful germination and new plant establishment. This relationship not only aids plant reproduction but also contributes to the maintenance of genetic diversity and resource optimization in plant communities.
As the world's most abundant insect, ants display an impressive array of dietary preferences. This diversity allows them to occupy various ecological niches and adapt to different food sources and environmental conditions.
Omnivorous ants consume plant and animal materials, such as carpenter ants, Argentine ants, and pavement ants, consume plant and animal materials. They feed on seeds, nectar, fruits, and small invertebrates.
On the other hand, predatory ants like army ants, bull ants, and trap-jaw ants primarily rely on other insects and small animals. These predatory insects employ various strategies to capture and consume their prey. For example, they use their powerful mandibles to grip and crush smaller insects or even engage in "ant wars" to capture other ant nests.
Herbivorous ants like leafcutter ants and harvester ants primarily consume plant materials. These ants have evolved specialized behaviors to exploit their preferred food sources. For instance, harvester ants collect seeds to store in their nests.
Supercolonies are a combination of 2 or more colonies. Argentine ants, red imported fire ants, and yellow crazy ants often form supercolonies. These vast communities span large areas with many interconnected nests. They work, communicate, and share resources while maintaining a unified social structure6.
Chemical signals and pheromones help members recognize each other, promoting cooperation and efficiency. Having many queens supports growth and genetic diversity, improving their ability to adapt.
Yet, supercolonies can harm ecosystems by outcompeting native ants and disrupting human activities. For instance, the Argentine ant supercolony in Southern California has invaded homes and damaged crops.
Unlike other species of ants, army ants don't stay in permanent nests. They are the nests themselves! They move from one place to another and often conduct large-scale raids. These raids are a prime strategy for capturing and consuming prey2.
When the colony unites and moves together, they form a dense, broad front, relentlessly pursuing anything that crosses their path. The sheer intensity of these raids often leaves their prey, including insects, small vertebrates, and invertebrates, with little chance of escaping.
Interestingly, army ants are blind and rely on their unique sense of touch to navigate their surroundings and communicate with each other. Their antennae help them perceive their environment and interact with their fellow ants.
This efficient communication system, their specialized roles within the colony, and their immense numbers enable army ants to execute their aggressive raids successfully. As a result, they regulate insect populations within their ecosystems.
One particular species, the Malaysian Exploding Ant (Camponotus saundersi), blows itself up to protect the colony.
When the worker ants sense a threat to their colony, they employ a self-sacrificing behavior known as autothysis. Unique to social insects like ants and termites, autothysis uses the ants' oversized mandibular glands, which contain a toxic secretion.
How does it work? These ants contract their abdominal muscles with great force3, causing their glands to rupture. This action releases a sticky, corrosive substance capable of immobilizing or killing nearby predators. Older worker ants typically perform this suicidal act, prioritizing the colony's safety over their own lives.
The toxic secretion not only repels predators but also serves as a warning signal to other ants in the area.
One of the most fascinating ants facts is their ability to walk upside down. You can often see them marching on walls and ceilings. This extraordinary ability is mainly due to their six sturdy legs, each equipped with specialized foot structures called pretarsi.
These pretarsi have claws, hairs, and spines that help them adhere to smooth surfaces. Furthermore, it also allows them to navigate diverse terrains while searching for food or evading predators.
Their legs also possess a specialized structure called arolium, an adhesive pad comprising soft tissue within the pretarsus4. The arolium can expand and contract as needed, providing a firm grip even on slippery surfaces.
Moreover, the arolium is like a sticky tape that can adjust its adhesiveness on demand. When ants walk upside down, their arolium expands and sticks to the surface, ensuring they remain securely attached without losing balance.
Numerous cultures worldwide have used ants and their nests in traditional remedies for various health conditions. For instance, traditional Chinese medicine values black mountain ants1 (Polyrhachis vicina Roger) for their purported anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and immune-boosting properties.
People struggling with arthritis often turn to these ants to relieve their debilitating symptoms, while others use them to treat digestive issues like hepatitis and liver diseases. Similarly, Ayurvedic medicine practitioners in India have relied on ants as a natural remedy for skin diseases, infections, and digestive problems for generations.
In South America, indigenous tribes have a unique approach to using ants and their nests for treating wounds and infections. They believe that the antimicrobial properties within the ants and their nests can help speed up the healing process.
Meanwhile, some African communities have found that crushed ants can effectively remedy respiratory issues like coughs and colds, as they can clear the airways.
Ants may be tiny and often overlooked, but they are vital in maintaining healthy ecosystems worldwide. These tiny insects contribute significantly to soil aeration, seed dispersal, and pest control, making them crucial for the well-being of our planet.
As they tirelessly tunnel through the ground, ants improve soil fertility by allowing air, water, and essential nutrients to reach deeper layers. This process is vital for plant growth and overall soil health. Moreover, ants act as nature's custodians, keeping potential pests in check by eating various insects and arthropods that could otherwise wreak havoc on plant life.
Although most ant species are safe from extinction, some face significant threats due to habitat loss and climate change. Rapid urbanization, agricultural expansion, and deforestation contribute to the disappearance of suitable nesting and foraging sites.
Meanwhile, climate change alters temperature and precipitation patterns, potentially disrupting the distribution and abundance of certain ant species.
As highly sensitive creatures, ants often serve as an early warning sign for larger ecosystem disturbances. For example, the absence of ants means no one disperses seeds, which can dramatically affect the balance of plant species.
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Kou, J., Ni, Y., Li, N., Wang, J., Liu, L., & Jiang, Z. (2005). Analgesic and Anti-inflammatory Activities of Total Extract and Individual Fractions of Chinese Medicinal Ants Polyrhachis lamellidens. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 28(1), 176–180.
Schneirla, T. C., Brown, R. Z., & Brown, F. C. (1954). The bivouac or temporary nest as an adaptive factor in certain terrestrial species of army ants. Ecological Monographs, 24(3), 269-296.
Jones, T. H., Clark, D. A., Edwards, A. A., Davidson, D. W., Spande, T. F., & Snelling, R. R. (2004). The chemistry of exploding ants, Camponotus spp. (cylindricus complex). Journal of Chemical Ecology, 30(8), 1479-1492.
Federle, W., Brainerd, E. L., McMahon, T. A., & Hölldobler, B. (2001). Biomechanics of the movable pretarsal adhesive organ in ants and bees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(11), 6215-6220.
Lengyel, S., Gove, A. D., Latimer, A. M., Majer, J. D., & Dunn, R. R. (2009). Ants sow the seeds of global diversification in flowering plants. PLoS ONE, 4(5), e5480.
Giraud, T., Pedersen, J. S., & Keller, L. (2002). Evolution of supercolonies: The Argentine ants of southern Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(9), 6075-6079.
Schultheiss, P., Nooten, S. S., Wang, R., Wong, M. E., Brassard, F., & Guénard, B. (2022). The abundance, biomass, and distribution of ants on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 119(40).