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The Tiny World of Ants

Updated on January 25, 2017
Photo by axente ovidiu
Photo by axente ovidiu

If you were an ant, you would be one of the busiest creatures in the world. You would work practically all day and all night, scarcely ever stopping to sleep. Then, when you did snatch a little sleep, you would have it standing up, or perhaps you would just roll over wherever you happened to be. And what you would be working at so hard would be-gathering food, looking after ant eggs and babies, caring for the queen or queens in every possible way, building additions to the nest, tending aphid "cows", keeping the ant city clean, and so on.

Also, if you were an ant, you would most likely be a girl, for there are only ever a few hundred boys in an ant community, whereas there are many thousands of girls.

The boys are all princes, but the girls are divided into different groups- princesses, nurses, workers, and even soldiers. And very fierce soldiers they can be, too. Just look at this bulldog ant, for instance, with her long curved pincers toothed like saws, and imagine how you would like to be another ant having an argument with her!

The race of ants is very ancient indeed. They were on earth, running their great cities; many millions of years before man appeared. And they do not seem to have changed through all those thousands of centuries, whereas most of the other living things on Earth have changed quite a lot. Take another special look at our bulldog ant up there, for of all the different kinds of ants, she is perhaps the most ancient.

Well, as you know, ants live together in huge communities, like bees and termites. Also, like bees and termites, they have an egg-laying queen, and they take great care of their young, and in some ways ant and termite cities are rather alike. But you could never mistake a city of ants for one of bees.

Ants are intelligent builders, for they are able to use all kinds of materials in the making of their cities-earth, wood, leaves, packed mud, gravel. Perhaps their favorite kind of city is one that has its entrance beside a rock, and then delves underground with many branching passageways, with rooms at different levels, and with the rock as the city's main roof.

Everybody in an ant eity is busy except the princes and princesses. These royal brothers and sisters have everything done for them as long as they live. They are fed, combed, cleaned and generally fussed over. It is easy to pick them out from the workers and soldiers, because they are the only ones with wings in the whole ant city, and the only ones who are utterly carefree. Right up to that exciting day when they fly off to get married, these princes and princesses have nothing to do except play around and enjoy themselves.

Then, when the time comes, a remarkable thing happens. The princes and princesses in all the nests over quite a distance prepare for their marriage flight on exactly the same day-and we of the human race are still wondering how they all know one anothers intentions.

Anyway, off they go on their great adventure, flying up into the air for the first and only time in their lives. And if any of them are afraid to leave the nest, the workers push and hustle them out.

Once in the air, the princes from each nest forget all about their sister princesses with whom they have grown up and played until this very day, and can think only of the princesses from other nests. To these, they feel very much attracted, and way up in the air many of them marry. But after this, the poor little princes do not live more than a few days, for they cannot even feed themselves.

For the princesses, things are very different. Each one is now a young queen who (if all goes well) will begin a new ant colony.

When she lands on the ground again, she immediately pulls off her wings, for she will never need them again. Then she finds a sheltered spot, digs a little hole, creeps into it, seals it up with earth, and waits until her first eggs arrive.

Many young queens die during this time, for they have no food except that which they absorb from their own fat wing muscles.

At last, sometimes after months, the first eggs appear. These are very tiny, as the young queen has had so little food for them.

But she watches over them like a good mother, and when they hatch out into tiny larvae, she feeds them with her own saliva. Very soon now they become true ants, and immediately go out to find some food for their mother. Then they get busy "around the house".

They start digging passages and rooms. They tend their mother the queen in every possible way-and from now on, she will never again be lonely. She will live for many years, surrounded by her enormous family, for she will lay many thousands of eggs.

During her lifetime she will see her nest grow from the tiny hole she first dug, into a large rambling city. And as time goes on, more and more queens will become established in it until there are perhaps hundreds of them.

In an ant nest, nothing is by chance. Everything is carefully planned, and has a good reason for being there. There are royal quarters, nurseries, store-houses, "cattle" pens where aphids are kept and tended for their precious honey-dew, which the ants enjoy so much. Sometimes there are even mushroom gardens very much like those that termites grow.

The rooms, built at different levels, have different degrees of warmth and dampness, and this is very important in the rearing of ant babies. For instance, the larvae are kept in a damp nursery so that the moisture won't dry out of their skins. And the workers are always carrying the eggs around to the best places-up towards the top of the nest to get warm . . . down again to stop them from growing too warm. The looking-after of eggs and larvae would be a full-time job in itself, yet the tireless ants do so much more besides.

The moment the eggs are laid, workers carry them away to a nursery, and lick them all over until they stick to one another.

Then they can be carried around in groups instead of one at a time.

After about three weeks, tiny white larvae hatch out of the eggs, and these-in their separate nursery-receive special attention, for there is an oiliness on their skins which the nurses love to lick.

They are also generously fed until they are big enough to become pupae. Then, they spin little silken cocoons for themselves, and stay tucked away in these for another three weeks or so.

Of course, inside their cocoons they gradually change into ants as we know them-and the wonderful thing is that, when their change is complete, the nurses know about it, and arrange for them to be "born". They cut a hole in each cocoon, and carefully ease it off. But the new ant is not yet free, for she still has a tight skin around her. The nurses lick this off, then wash her, straighten out her legs, and welcome her into the nest with every possible attention.

She now has the ant shape that we all know well, but is still very pale in color, and doesn't go outside to start her "work" life for a week or two, until her color has darkened. Of course, if it is a royal ant, it doesn't go out to work at all, but settles down for a life of luxury.

At first, when she goes out food-hunting, the young worker ant may get lost, but she soon learns how to find her way home by the position of the sun, as well as by following the smell of other ants from the same nest. Also, at first, she may mistake a tiny pebble for a seed, and carry it all the way home just to have the gatekeeper take it and throw it away. But very soon she corrects this sort of mistake too, and makes a perfect job of everything she has to do.

She knows that she mustn't wander into the hunting-grounds of other nests, because these are defended by very stern guardians, who would kill her right away without asking any questions if they found her there. She in turn guards against strangers as she goes hurrying around, but she enjoys meeting others from her own nest. When this happens, the "sisters" recognize each other by their "nest" smell, and they stop to say a word or two in passing. They do this by tapping on each others heads with their feelers-and it is remarkable how accurately they can give messages with this "feeler" talk.

Each little worker also learns how to help keep the nest clean by carrying rubbish out of it and throwing it on the garbage tip.

She learns the happy task of looking after ant babies and the royal members of the nest, the sad task of burying her dead sisters in the cemetery, and the unpleasant task of fighting her enemies with bites, stings, and sprays of poison.

In her spare time, she may amuse herself with the herds of aphids that ants keep as men keep herds of cattle. She may help to carry them from a worked-out feeding ground to a new one.

She may help to build little mud shelters over them to protect them from enemies, she will look after aphid eggs as lovingly as if they were her own, and she will certainly sip the delicious honey-dew which is aphid "milk".

There is no end to the cleverness of ants. We have only to look at their homes to realize this. Not all of them are built underground or in mounds of earth. The fierce little green tree ants of northern Australia build their nests in trees. Great numbers of leaves have to be drawn up and bound together in some way, to make a home large enough for a whole tribe. But ants do not make thread, as spiders do, so they put their own babies to work on the job. Larvae about to spin their cocoons are carried out of their nursery and moved backwards and forwards over the leaves so that their small amount of cocoon silk helps to make a shelter for the whole nest instead of one for themselves alone. Then, as they have to become pupae without cocoons, the nurses take very special care of them.

Another wonderful kind of ant home is to be found in tropical jungles, high up in trees. It is a great mud ball, pressed together grain by grain with endless patience and industry. But as this kind of home would be quickly washed away by heavy rains, its clever little builders gather seeds and plant them in it. These soon grow into sturdy plants, whose roots bind the mud together so firmly that rain will not harm it-and when at last they produce flowers, you can imagine what a beautiful garden those ants live in, high above the ground.

So you see, ants can find an intelligent way around every difficulty. Have you ever heard of the honeypot ants, for instance?

These live in Central Australia, and in other desert parts of the world where it is hot and dry, and food is scarce. Now, all ants have two stomachs- a tiny one for themselves, and a bigger one for their brothers and sisters. In this bigger one they hold a little honey-dew, or some other ant delicacy, so that when they visit the larval nursery or meet a prince, princess or queen, or even one of their fellow workers, they can bring some of this "community" food up into their mouths and hand it over. But the honeypot ants store so much food in their community stomachs that they look like marbles with absurdly tiny legs and heads. They spent their whole lives clinging to the ceiling and walls of a special store-room in the nest, ready to feed any of their hungry family who come to them for a snack-and if it were not for this wonderful, unselfish service, the desert ant tribes would have scarcely any chance of survival.

Ants that grow "mushrooms" actually feed their gardens with the bodies of dead caterpillars, and with leaves that they have cut from orange- and lemon-trees, and thoroughly chewed. And the harvester ants gather seeds which they sometimes drop around their nests. Here, the seeds grow into plants, so that the ants have their own little fields. Also, they gather certain grains, which they chew up and mix with saliva. They shape this dough into tiny loaves, place them outside on the warm earth to bake-and in no time they have a batch of tasty ant-bread.

This is all great fun, but ants are not always good-natured and peaceful. They will always fight if they have to, to defend their homes and hunting-grounds, but there are some kinds that spend their whole lives warring. Fortunately these grim killers, known as army ants, are not found in Australia, but in the tropical jungles of Africa and America they are terrible indeed. They have no settled home. They are almost always out marching, and destroying everything in sight. Other insects and animals flee from them in terror, and even a sleeping man can be killed when thousands of them attack him at once.

Then, in America and Europe, there is another dreadful race of ants, called the amazons. These have cruel jaws which can snap other ants in two, but which are useless for the simplest jobs of housework or even for eating. So the amazons set out on marches to the nests of other ants, and steal as many cocoons as they can carry. The kidnapped babies have no idea of what has happened to them, of course-and when they come out of their cocoons as perfect ants, they think they are in their own home. So they hurry about doing everything that needs to be done in the nest, and feeding the big bullies who have made them their slaves. If only they knew that, without them, those bullies would soon starve to death!

No doubt you have thousands of ants living in your own garden, but not mean or cruel ones like the armies or amazons. So when you come across them, just stop a few minutes to watch them going about the important business of living their tiny lives, which in many ways are so much like our own. And as you watch them moving around busily in their tiny world, you might also think of how tiny our world is, among all the millions of other worlds in space. Thinking of it like that, we ourselves seem almost as tiny as the ants, don't we?


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