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How Many Ants Are There in a Colony?

Last Updated: 18.09.20

 

If your home has been invaded by ants you might want to check online reviews of pet-safe ant killers before going to war. In general, the size of the colony depends on the species, the seasons, or even the moment taking place in the colony’s life. For example, scientists identified colonies of Formica yessensis to have approximately 305 million workers while colonies of Formica fusca have around 500 workers.

 

The influence of seasons

The number of ants forming a colony also varies according to the season. For example, a colony of Dolichoderus mariae has around 300 ants in the summer. The nest gets a bit more crowded during the winter as the number of members reaches 2,000 workers for each queen. 

This might seem odd since we all know that ants work harder during warmer seasons to gather resources for the colder periods of the year. It only makes sense that a bigger number of worker ants is required during the summer. 

The number of ants in a colony is of great importance as it affects all activities taking place in the colony’s nest. The way the ants organize the tunnels, how they protect their territory, how they reproduce and even their physiology are influenced by how many ants are in the colony.

 

Existence of a supercolony

A supercolony is formed of multiple regular colonies united over a large zone. Despite being part of the same colony, the ants are making a difference when choosing breeding mates from different colonies. However, there is no sign of aggression between different colonies belonging to the same supercolony.

There is scientific evidence of a supercolony living in Japan. The number of worker ants in that specific colony was approximated to be up to 306 million with more than one million queen ants. All these ants were living in 45,000 nests connected to each other through a vast network of tunnels.

Another supercolony was identified in Southern Europe. It was a colony of Argentine ants having millions of nests containing billions of worker ants. Scientists tested 33 ant populations along a 3,373-mile stretch and 30 of them belonged to the same supercolony.

 

 

Existence of a megacolony

The term “megacolony” has recently come up as scientists discovered that the biggest Japanese, European and Californian colonies of Argentine ants were actually part of a single global colony. 

 

The colony size is influenced by the queen

As we know, the queen has the most important role since she establishes and leads the colony. The queen mates once during her life, before establishing the colony’s nest. A big group of virgin queens will swarm from the colony looking for mating partners. After surviving the trip, they will use pheromones to attract drones as possible partners.

After mating, both queens and drones lose their wings. While the queens are looking for a new place to found the colony, ant males live for a shorter period of time in isolation. The first laid eggs will entirely consist of worker ants. 

These first adult ants will expand the nest, look for food and take care of the next hatching eggs. As the queen lays more and more eggs, the number of worker ants capable of taking care of the nest will increase leading to a prosperous colony.

 

Preparing a new colony

The queen has total control over the result of the hatching period for every batch of eggs. Virgin queens capable of reproduction will hatch from the fertilized eggs while unfertilized eggs will turn into winged males having the role of mating. The queen might need almost a year until deciding to produce virgin queens and drones which will expand the colony’s population.

 

Colonies with numerous queens

There are several species of ants which have colonies with more than one queen. Every queen will continuously lay eggs leading to more and more ants able to work, take care of the larvae, and expand the colony’s nest. Colonies with multiple queens have a greater chance of surviving the cold weather since there are a lot more food gatherers.

Even though a colony with more than one queen has a better chance of finding resources and defending from intruders, the queens will start killing each other. The process continues until there is only one queen left to lead the entire colony. 

Fighting for power has a serious impact on the ant colony as there will be fewer queens capable of hatching eggs. Also, having fewer defender ants makes the nest more vulnerable to outside threats.

 

 

How queens protect themselves

In order to protect themselves from these aggressive attacks, some of the queens will reduce the number of laid eggs. This way, they keep their energy and can fight back easily if attacked. However, worker ants can identify the queens, saving their energy. 

The more eggs a queen lays, the more particular pheromones she emits. If the worker ants detect a low level of these pheromones, they will kill the queen. Because they are smaller and not as powerful as the queen, it will take several days of continuous attacks to kill the queen. 

By leaving the queen no option but to be a team player, worker ants have influenced the evolution of the society developing inside the nest. Nevertheless, this might not be the best solution. 

Scientists observed that in some cases, worker ants don’t stop the attacks and end up killing all queens. This particular case represents the death of the colony since there will be no other ant capable of laying eggs.

 

Strength in numbers

When armies of ants move through the tropical forest, they consume everything that comes in their way. Not even bigger animals such as scorpions represent a problem for their powerful jaws. As they swarm across the forest, ants use their legs and jaws to form a temporary nest (known as “bivouac”). 

The queen, together with the eggs are placed in the middle of the nest to be protected. After consuming everything in the area, they will relocate to a new zone. It is estimated that an army of ants can kill 100,000 small beings per day. Some of these armies might have up to 20 million ants, all lead by one queen.

 

The lifespan of a worker ant

How much an ant lives depends on its species. For example, odorous house ant workers could live up to three years. The lifespan is much shorter for fire ants as a member of this species usually lives for approximately five or six weeks.

 

The lifespan of the ant queen

The queen’s life span influences directly the number of ants in a colony. Take note that the queen will lay eggs regularly in spite of breeding only once, before digging the colony’s nest. Unlike the worker ants, queens live for a much longer period of time. For example, the leafcutter queen leads the colony for almost 14 years and produces almost 150 million workers.  

For other ant species, the lifespan varies from 3 months to 30 years. In some ant species, such as fire ants, the queen doesn’t produce virgin queens. In general, the queen lives for 6 years and after this period, there will be no other ant in the colony capable of laying eggs. The queen’s death does not represent the colony’s immediate end. 

It takes around 22 to 38 days for an egg to turn into an adult worker. There will still be worker ants to take care of the already laid eggs for a limited period of time. According to scientists, minor workers live from 30 to 60 days while a major worker might live up to 180 days.

 

 

The importance of food

The food reserve and its quality has a major impact on how long an ant lives. It has been observed by scientists that worker ants will sacrifice themselves by consuming less food so other members of the colony are well fed.

 

Increasing the colony size

Besides the usual methods of increasing the number of worker ants, there is one method unknown to many people. Ants take prisoners of war. If they attack and defeat another colony of ants, they will take the eggs from the nest. When the ants hatching from these eggs become mature worker ants, they will be used as slaves by the victorious colony. 

Some slave tasks might consist of taking care of the eggs and larvae, carrying food, and digging tunnels. This behavior is specific for the Slave Maker ant (or Polyergus rufescens). After stealing the eggs, they place them into the nest in different chambers according to age. 

 

 

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