What is an ant?

This seems like a very easy question to answer: Ants are small things that ruin picnics. While this is technically true, I promise you that the full answer is much more interesting than that. It is much more complicated too but all interesting things are!

Ok so ants are animals that live in colonies that aren’t bees or wasps, right? Well…kind of…but not exactly. Termites live in similar colonies but aren’t related to ants at all! Even though the are sometimes called White ants! Don’t get me started. I will save that for another post. There are shrimp in the sea that live in colonies too. Inside sea sponges which is pretty cool. There are even mammals that live in colonies: Naked mole rats. They may not win any beauty contests but they are the mammal equivalent of ants. These types of colonies are what we call eusocial and those that live in eusocial colonies are eusocial animals. This means that these animals live in colonies together with overlapping generations, look after each other’s brood and have reproductive and worker individuals. Workers in ant colonies are all female too. Girl Power!

You might also hear these animals referred to as superorganisms. This means that colonies of animals can be scene is behaving as one big animal. I will cover that in another post but for now let’s just worry about what ants are which is a big question.

There are so many different ants that almost everything you think of when you think of ants has an exception. Not all ants have queens. Not all live in huge colonies. Depending on how you look at it, some are not even small with some ants even getting over 5 cm! we might think this is small but you wont think that if you see hundreds of them running around. This is why we have to look at taxonomy, which simply means how animals are related to each other. Taxonomy includes some big words in Latin which is very scary, but I will try my best to explain them. I do not speak Latin. It is a dead language so nobody is around to correct us! Taxonomy is the one thing that all Ant species have in common.

A variety of ant species. A) Queen Driver ant, Dorylus molestus. B) A Yellow meadow ant worker, Lasius flavus. C) A Bull ant Queen, Myrmecia sp. D) A turtle ant worker, Cephalotes varians.

Ants are insects found in the family Formicidae. They fall into the order Hymenoptera with bees, wasps and sawflies. Families and orders are just ways scientists group different animals. It gets very complicated very quickly but we will be focusing on Hymenoptera and Formicidae. Understanding them makes it easier you do not need to know these to fully appreciate ants.  Ants are closely related to wasps who they split from 100 million years ago. This makes ants 30 million years older than Tyrannosaurus Rex. There are over 12,500 different species of ants in the world with huge diversity in appearance and behaviour. These differences are why ants are so amazing; they look and act so differently that each species is like finding a completely new animal sometimes. New ants are being found all the time so sorry future people if that number is too small.

Taxonomy of ants, bees and wasps within their branch of Hymenoptera. Velvet ants are not ants! Ahhhh!

Ants are insects which means their bodies are broken up into 3 main pieces: Head, Thorax and abdomen. These are broken up into small sections shown below. With ants, the thorax is often called a Mesosoma and the abdomen is usually called a Gaster.

A VERY general structure of ants.

A lot of these structures are found on other insects. However, the petiole is only found in Hymenoptera and is very obvious in ants. Lots of ants look very different but the all have these features….sort of. Some don’t have eyes. And others don’t have stingers. This is what I meant when I said there were loads of exceptions. Just stay with it and I will talk about those later. Oh and the males of some species don’t have legs. Moving on!

The Queens and males of many species often have wings for part of their life-cycles. When they have wings they are called Alates. When they loose their wings they are called Dealates.

A diagram of an Alate Queen ant.

Again, not all species have Queens or males with wings and I will talk more about these in their own posts. Otherwise this one post will go on forever.

I hope you are following along. If you have any questions about what I have talked about here please leave a question below and I will try my best to answer it or I will tell you where to find the answer in future posts. Thank you for reading and I hope you are enjoying yourselves,

Alex.

Glossery

Alate- A winged insect of a species that has both wingless and winged forms.

Brood- The ants’ eggs, larvae and pupae found in the colony.

Eusocial- Having a complex social structure in which individuals live in a colony and have specialised jobs with one or more breeding females and non-breeding members caring for the young together.

Dealate- Having lost the wings

Formicidae- The family of animals we call ants (basically a super fancy way of saying ants).

Hymenoptera- The order of animals that contains ants, bees, wasps and sawflies.

Petiole- A slender ‘waist’ that connects the thorax and abdomen in certain insects.

Super-organism- An organised society (of ants in our case) that functions as a larger, single animal.

Taxonomy- Organising living things based on how they are related and evolved from common ancestors.

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