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How Do Ants Reproduce?

Last Updated: 20.09.20

 

If a colony of ants established its nest around your home, having a pet safe ant killer will be of great use since the ants will look for food everywhere in your house. Despite mating only once in her lifetime, the ant queen is capable of laying a large number of eggs. Take note that some ant colonies might have millions of worker ants, depending on the species.

 

The importance of the queen 

Every colony has as the centerpiece its queen. The queen plays the most important role since it is the only one from the entire nest laying eggs. The reproductive process begins with virgin queens looking for drones in order to mate.

Reproduction is quite a complex process as the queen must find suitable drones to mate with. Selecting the right ant male to reproduce with will give the eggs a higher chance to survive and develop through all stages of an ant’s life: larvae, pupae, and adult.

 

 

Looking for male ants

In large colonies, hundreds of thousands of fertile queens will take flight from the nest to reproduce. From this big group of possible colony founders, only one or two will survive the trip.  Most of the ants will be eaten by frogs, centipedes, or birds. Some of them could be attacked by another colony’s defensive ants.

After getting to a safe place, ant queens use a chemical substance called pheromones in order to attract mating partners. Drones will be alerted by the large quantities of nuptial flight pheromones and will come looking for the queen. 

The use of pheromones is of great importance since it allows the queen to look for mating partners without having to spend a lot of time and effort. Take note that ant queens depend on energy reserves. 

The future ant queen and ant males have wings helping them to depart from their colony’s nest. By leaving the colony, chances of reproducing with members of their family are smaller. After breeding, both ant females and males lose their wings. 

 

The beginning of a new colony

The ant queen enters the reproduction phase only once in her lifetime. She has a particular pouch where she keeps the male sperm in an internal pocket ( known as “spermatheca”) placed near the edge of her abdomen. Sperm will be kept there until the queen allows it to infiltrate her reproductive tract to fertilize the eggs. 

This way, there is no need for repetitive mating throughout her life. After the nuptial flight, ant males generally live for a short period in solitude. The queen leaves the mating area, searching for the right place to start her own colony. Having survived the trip, she forms a nest where she lays the eggs.  

In general, after the colony is established, the queen ant lays eggs continuously. For some species, ant adults will emerge 40 to 60 days after the eggs are laid. The queen will take care by herself of those very first eggs until the larvae hatch. Usually, these larvae will turn solely into workers. 

 

Controlling the outcome

The fertilized eggs turn into wingless female workers or virgin queens capable of reproduction. The outcome of the hatching process is entirely controlled by the colony’s queen. Eggs that have not been fertilized become winged males whose sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen. 

The ant queen controls the gender and function of the future larvae by using a chemical substance. This particular substance delays the wing’s growth for males and the development of ovaries for females. The outcome of the hatching process depends on the colony’s cyclic needs. 

After reaching an adequate number of worker ants, the queen might produce larvae developing into virgin queens in order to expand the colony.

It could take from 10-12 months to a few years before the queen begins to produce virgin queens and males. They will depart from the colony, swarm, find a mating partner and start their colony in a new place. This happens only if the colony is safe and becomes big enough.

 

 

How long does a queen live?

Compared to worker ants, queens live for a long period. There is scientific evidence that a Lasius niger queen lived in captivity for almost 30 years. Unlike the Lasius niger queen, the urban Pharaoh’s ant queen has a lifespan of only three months. Long life is also lived by the leafcutter ant since the queen lives for approximately 14 years and produces over 150 million workers.

 

The important role of the worker ants

Worker ants expand the nest capacity, dig new tunnels and move the new eggs into designated hatching rooms. They take care of the hatching larvae, feeding, cleaning and protecting them until the pupae (the stage between larvae and adult) become young workers themselves. At the beginning of the colony’s growth, workers are usually taking care of the queen and expanding the nest.

 

More than one queen

Several ant species have been observed to start a new colony with a small number of ant queens working together. A young queen could leave the nest to develop a new colony with the aid of a group made of worker ants. If a colony has more fertile queens, things are a bit different. Each queen will leave the nest with a group of worker ants looking to form a new colony. 

The process where a queen leaves the colony with a group of ant workers in order to establish a new nest is called colony budding. The ants forming a new colony will have the same roles as they did in the old nest. Workers will help with the formation of the new tunnels and will care for the young larvae.

In general, people have a hard time trying to control some ant species such as pharaoh ants, fire ants, and ghost ants as they spread by colony budding.

 

 

Keeping the power

A colony with multiple queens has a higher chance of surviving the first year. Each of these queens will lay its eggs which means there will be a big number of worker ants to dig new tunnels, carry food, take care of the larvae and protect the colony. Despite the obvious advantage, after a short period of time, queens will begin to murder one another until there is only one survivor.

In colonies with multiple queens, some of them will do anything to stay on top, even if it affects the entire nest. The more eggs a queen lays, the more energy she consumes. Some queens will reduce the number of eggs, therefore reducing the number of workers. Ant queens will try to keep their energy so they can defend themselves from murderous attacks. 

 

Worker ants might attack the queen

Scientists noticed that worker ants can detect if a queen is being selfish. The most fertile queens emitted a large number of chemical cues which made them safe from other ants’ attacks. However, if a group of workers attacks a queen it will take a few days of biting or spraying acid to bring her down. 

Don’t forget that worker ants are smaller and less powerful than the queen. In general, workers will keep attacking the queens until there is only one queen left alive. Nevertheless, there have been situations when workers killed all queens leaving no possibility to produce new larvae. 

This represents the colony’s end since workers are infertile and only the queen is capable of laying eggs. By killing the egoistic queens, worker ants have increased the chances for queens to be good leaders, therefore improving their complex society.

 

Leaving no successors

Not all ant species have multiple queens. For example, fire ant colonies have a single queen for the colony’s entire life. The death of the queen is followed shortly by the death of the entire colony, as she leaves no successors to replace her.

 

Weather’s effect on ant reproduction

In general, higher temperatures are beneficial for ant colonies. Laid eggs must be kept warm and rotated in order to produce worker ants. During summer, the eggs may be even brought out to be warmed directly by the sun. Of course, there will be a lot of defensive workers to protect them from outer threats.

During days with lower temperatures, the hatching eggs and pupae will be moved into warmer chambers of the nest. Colder seasons are challenging for the survival of the ants as they have to rely on the food gathered during spring or summer.

 

 

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