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Ants: Their History, Life, and Purpose

Theophanes is a New-England-based blogger, traveler, writer, photographer, sculptor, and lover of cats.

Flying ant in amber

Flying ant in amber

Ants Make Their First Appearance

Most people never think twice when they see ants in their day-to-day lives; they are such a common sight that they are usually walked by without notice. Yet to not notice these little creatures is something of a shame, for they are a fascinating bunch capable of a great many things. We know for example that ants have existed at least since 92 million years ago (long before the dinosaurs went extinct at 65 million years).

At this point, seven individuals from four different species were encased in amber in what is known today as New Jersey. In 1998 these little fossils were found by Dr. David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History. They proved important because they revealed that ants must be probably considerably older in order to have reached at least four distinct species at the time. It also has revealed that the social structure of ants was intact around at the time. This likely makes them the first insects to have complex social structures. In essence, they were likely the first city builders long before humanity caught on.

Ants are the most populous animals on the planet. They started breeding in vast numbers 50 million years ago.

Ants are the most populous animals on the planet. They started breeding in vast numbers 50 million years ago.

That's a Lot of Ants!

Today, ants are the most populous living creatures on the planet with the largest biomass of any other animal. That means that if they all came together and got weighed, they'd be even heavier than the combined weight of the human population! So when did this population boom start? Paleontologists say they started to flourish in enormous numbers around 50 million years ago.

Various leafcutter ants, including two queens

Various leafcutter ants, including two queens

The Social Structure of Ants

The social life of ants proves to be a fascinating topic. Ants operate in a matriarchal society, usually led by one queen in the colony. This queen is a baby-making machine; besides giving orders to her minions, she also works very hard to continuously lay eggs. This she does after mating with winged drones (male ants) and returning to the nest.

After mating, a queen is able to lay fertilized eggs on a continuous basis for months to come. She is capable of choosing the sex and status of each egg and spends most of her time creating more workers, but occasionally does throw male offspring and successors to her insect throne. Male ants are always winged so they can mate with a queen mid-air. This is their only purpose in life and they serve to complete no other work.

Curiously this extreme matriarchy can get even more independent of male influence as there are at least one species known where males have been bred out of existence. In the Pristomyrmex pungens species, the queen no longer reigns. Instead, reproductive capabilities are instilled in all the worker ants who lay their own eggs which hatch to be essentially clones of themselves. This avoids the need for males or mating. This sort of reproduction is exceedingly rare and is most well known in the Cnemidophorus uniparens, a type of whiptail lizard.

Leafcutter ants harvesting vegitation

Leafcutter ants harvesting vegitation

The Amazing Acheivements of Ants

Believe it or not, besides being the first animals on earth to have their own form of civilization (city-like colonies), ants were also likely the first animals to learn how to farm. Leaf-cutter ants in the Amazon are known for gathering fresh leaves, dragging them back into their nest, and using the raw plant matter to grow a form of fungus they eat as food.

Agricultural skills didn't stop with farming as far as ants are concerned. They've also been known to keep their own form of livestock as some species have been recorded 'milking' a sugary substance from aphids living on the same trees they do. The aphids in return get protection from the ants who will attack aphid predators.

Ants also have a form of antibiotic in their saliva that prevents entire colonies from being wiped out by disease. They are also very caring towards each other; they share each stomach-load of food with at least one other ant through a process of regurgitation. This ensures that everyone eats and survives and the colony can continue to go strong.

None of this would be possible without proper communication. Though ants are incapable of verbal language, they do "speak" to each other using a variety of pheromones and chemicals. Queens can give orders this way and workers can leave scent trails for fellow workers to find food; this is why ants will always follow the same original path to a food source, even if a shorter or easier path is available. In this way, ants can work together and unify within a matter of moments.

The Lifespan of an Ant

Status means a lot in ant society. The lowest ranking ants, the drones, survive only long enough to grow up and mate. Once their purpose has been served they die. Worker ants on the other hand usually live between a month and two of age. However, queens can continue on for more than a decade. That means they are some of the longest-living insects on the planet!

The Purpose of the Ant

Ants, just like any species of animal, fit into a much larger ecosystem, which they are a vital part. Without ants, which form a steady base to many ecosystems, some habitats would likely fail to thrive. In fact a great many may fail to thrive, seeing as ants are such an enormous force. They till the soil, dispose of the dead and rotting, weed out the slow and the weak (in the case of soldier ants for example,) create habitats where other insect species are dependant on, and provide food for many thousands of species of animals.

Even the "pest" species have their purpose. Wood-eating ants for example are a danger to houses and buildings but in nature they are a vital resource, returning raw (and dead) wood back to the soil so new trees can grow. This is not to mention that wasps and termites are both believed to have a family ancestry dating back to the humble ant. They will likely be the mother to even more new species of insect in the future and there's no stopping them filling whatever niche Nature needs them too. Ants in the long run are a pretty intense species. Though we take them for granted we all might find the world a more difficult place without our little insect companions.


Jacob on February 17, 2019:

Is it true that ants take up till 15 years to build their ant castles?

sathwik on September 26, 2018:

thanks alot for suchb kind information about ants i was so curious about ant but never searched for ants at google,thanks alot

Sonya Lee on August 06, 2018:

Thank you for your article, "Ants: Their History, Life, and Purpose". I appreciate ants more after reading your information. I am a nature and animal lover, and respect our eco system deeply. My experience with ants is they have a bit of a 'warrior' personality and invade if it suits them. I find them disrespectful for this reason, especially when they invade my home and food source, relentlessly.

Because I respect nature in thought and action, I find it odd that the ants disrespect me the way they do.

But, I do feel there is a severe imbalance within and around our planet earth, and this is partly what is causing the ants to invade the way they do. Their invasion behaviors feel to be a by-product of the imbalances 'we humans' have perpetuated and created to harm the eco-system in many ways.

My personal belief is, the imbalanced human behavior we demonstrate and see is a bi-product of the Negative Alien Agenda (NAA). Destroying eco systems, violence, hurting fellow humans and animals, etc., is 'not human'.

I believe these destructive behaviors are due to the hybridized predator mind of the invading reptilian races which has been downloaded into the consciousness of the human being, and which has also distorted the human's DNA.

The original divine human blueprint, ie the Silicate Matrix or Diamond Sun Human embraces kindness, compassion, love, generosity, non-violence, forgiveness, humanitarianism, service to others. We were intended to be stewards of the planet, and to respect and live in harmony with nature.

Thank you.

Sonya Lee

ANTS ARE PONTLESS on July 20, 2017:

All ants ever do is crawl on you and annoy the crap out-of you when your comfy or doing something I'm just sitting minding my own business until bam freaking ants oh and you animal lovers better stop be like "ant are helpful

Arun Dev from United Countries of the World on June 27, 2015:

This article is very interesting! According to me, ants are very hardworking and have a good social structure. Voted up!

Cathy Dulay on May 16, 2015:

Absolutely fascinating! I just finished watching a video on Facebook where cement was poured in anthill which prompted me to Google their purpose in life! Ironically, as I was entering my comment, an ant crawked on my cell phone!

Anon on March 29, 2015:

Queen ants don't give orders to the other ants, they serve solely as breeding machines, there is no "matriarchy" in ant society.

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on April 17, 2012:

jeremy: As far as I know drones from various neighboring colonies tend to take flight around the same time so yes, they can mate with their own queen or the neighbor's queen.

Ian VG on September 24, 2011:

I like the format of this article, very precise information and got to the point, keep writing!

RalphGreene on September 05, 2011:

Ants are magnificent creatures. I love the way they live and survive.Great article, Theophanes.

Pest Inspection Gold Coast on October 09, 2010:

Ants are an integral part of the ecosystem. With urbanization at its peak ants are seen more as pests rather than a connection in the ecosystem.

jogjakarta from Yogyakarta on September 15, 2010:

Nice Blog

Gloria Siess from Wrightwood, California on April 01, 2010:

I am very interested in insects; I did not know that ants had antibiotics in their saliva. Fascinating Hub. Check out my Hub on Honeybees being used to sniff out bombs (a true story)

melanie on September 02, 2009:

My 4 year old was interested in how ants live...since his recent run in with a fire anthill. Thank you so much for provided such insight! I sure feel lazy! LOL

bill nye the science guy on August 09, 2009:

Huh.. didn't know that. NOW YOU KNOW!!!!!

BILL BILL BIll bill .... NYE THE science guy.


jeremy on July 31, 2009:

do ants mate with other ants from the same colony???

Theophanes Avery (author) from New England on June 01, 2009:

Well if you think I left that out I don't suggest you check out my cockroach article. ;) Thanks for the comment, glad you enjoyed it!

James on June 01, 2009:

Great answers to a perplexing quetions......I think you left out that the purpose most of us see it to bite and pester human being's.

manish.pucsd from Bangalore , India on August 28, 2008:

Nice Article , I am a very big Ant lover and studied about them a lot by reading and viewing documentaries on them . I have around 10GB of videos on Ants and i have collected them with great effort .I really wish if we can become like Ants. I want to go to African also to see Siafu ants . I really want to see those ...

deborah67 on June 25, 2008:

Absolutely fascinating! I have always used ant colonies as a primary school project, but this has opened a whole new perspective for me. Thank you so much for such a complete and compelling education!

Julianna from SomeWhere Out There on June 25, 2008:

Now that is interesting!!! I am happy that I found someone to answer my question and provide clear and concise information on them as to me until now they were little pests. However now I do appreciate them more as they do have a purpose. VERY VERY GOOD ARTICLE!!