Colony life cycle Part 1: The basics

Before we start, I am just going to say that this will cover the general lifecycle of an ant colony. There are so many different colony cycles that I cannot cover them all in 1 post. So, stay tuned for some more posts about more unusual species. But for now, enjoy.

In a hole in the ground there lives an ant colony. Today we will be exploring how ant colonies change and evolve, begin and end. The issue with a cycle is it can be hard to decide where to start. We will start with a large, mature ant colony.

As I have said before, all the ants in a colony are female. This is true most of the time. However, there are parts of the year when this isn’t true. During the warm months of summer, ant colonies begin to change. The queen(s) start laying unfertilized eggs along side her usual eggs. These eggs will develop and grow into male ants with wings, princes of the colony. Some of the fertilized eggs will grow into winged females, Princesses. A single colony can produce thousands of winged individuals. They will wait until the time is right.

Ant nest full of alates.

After rain, on a warm, clear day these winged individuals will flood out of the nest and take flight. This is a nuptial or mating flight. They fly and mate to find mates from other colonies to avoid inbreeding and to spread far and wide. During these flights, virgin queens will mate with a selection of males. They will fly away from males so only the strongest can catch her and mate with her. Males will mate with a female, land and die. And that’s it. That is all they do. Fly, mate and die. A short life, but a good life. The Queens will store this sperm for their whole lives and will never mate again.

Virgin queens preparing to take flight, Messor sp.

Once the virgin queens have mated, they will land and shed their wings. They basically tear them off. Sounds lovely! Once she finds a suitable area, she will begin to dig a tunnel. This tunnel will end in a small chamber. This is the beginnings of her new colony. Once it is finished, she will seal the entrance. She will stay down here until the following spring. This is in fully claustral species. What will she eat? Nothing. Technically. She will not eat anything, but she will get some nutrients. Flying is exhausting and takes huge muscles to do so and the new queen is full of them. She ripped off her wings though, so they are now useless. The queen will slowly digest these muscles and that is how she will survive for months. While she is down there, she will lay her first eggs. These will be her first workers. She will feed the hungry larvae on her wing muscles via trophallaxis. This is a tiny amount of food, but it is enough for them to survive. This means they will grow slowly. The queen will spend her months cleaning her brood with her antibiotic saliva. If the queen is lucky, this is all that will happen until spring.

A queen ant in her founding chamber, Lasius sp.

Once her first workers emerge, they will begin grooming the queen and her brood. After a small while, they will break the seal to the surface and start to look for food. Because they had hardly any food while developing, these workers are very small and are called nanitics. This means they will only be able to scavenge for dead arthropods and sugars like nectar. It isn’t much, but it will feed the starving queen and her growing brood. The colony will grow and grow for years if they are lucky.

After a few years, the colony will be a mature colony and produce alates of their own. The cycle goes on and on and that is the basic colony lifecycle. There are so many exceptions to this that I will cover them in the future. I hope you have gained an appreciation for the queens and what they do to start their colonies! Pretty hardcore in my opinion. I hope you have enjoyed and thank you for reading,

Alex.

Glossary

Nuptial flight: A flight of sexually mature social insects for mating purposes.

Claustral: A method of establishing a new colony,in which a queen seals itself in a small chamber and hatches the first generation of workers, nourishing them primarily on stored body fat.

Trophallaxis: Sharing food mouth to mouth.

Nanitic: The first workers of a colony, often smaller.

Alate: A winged member of the colony.

References

Berenbaum, M.R., 1996. Bugs in the system: insects and their impact on human affairs. Basic Books.

Hölldobler, B. and Wilson, E.O., 1990. The ants. Harvard University Press.

Markin, G.P., Dillier, J.H., Hill, S.O., Blum, M.S. and Hermann, H.R., 1971. Nuptial flight and flight ranges of the imported fire ant, Solenopsis saevissima richteri (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Journal of the Georgia Entomological Society6(3), pp.145-156.

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