Ants: Their History, Life, and Purpose

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, and 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. These fossils proved important because it revealed that ants are 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 in fact 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 man caught on.

Ants are the most populous animals on the planet. They started breeding in vast number 50 million years ago.
Ants are the most populous animals on the planet. They started breeding in vast number 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 (meaning if they all came together and got weighed they'd be heavier then even the combined weight of the human population!) So when did this population boom start? Paleontologists say they started to flourish in enormous numbers sometime around 50 million years ago, the reasons for this remain unknown.

Various leafcutter ants, including two queens.
Various leafcutter ants, including two queens.

The Social Structure of Ants

The social lives 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 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 is 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 being wiped out by disease. They also are very caring towards each other as they share each stomach load of food with at least one other ant through a process of regurgitation. This ensures that every one 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 path, the original path, to a food source even if a shorter or easier path is obtainable.) In this way ants can work together and unify within a matter of moments.

The Inner Workings of Leafcutter Colony

Not everyone loves ants... in fact ants in the household can cause a lot of damage so they are often the subject of extermination.
Not everyone loves ants... in fact ants in the household can cause a lot of damage so they are often the subject of extermination.

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 then a decade. That means they are some of the longest lived insects on the planet!

A hungry anteater.
A hungry anteater.

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.

Ants Disposing of a Dead Gecko

Animation of Ant Communication

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Comments 17 comments

AEvans profile image

AEvans 8 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

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!!

deborah67 8 years ago

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!

manish.pucsd profile image

manish.pucsd 8 years ago from Bangalore , India

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 ...

James 7 years ago

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

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 7 years ago from New England Author

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!

jeremy  7 years ago

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

bill nye the science guy 7 years ago

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

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


melanie 7 years ago

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

GarnetBird profile image

GarnetBird 6 years ago from Northern California

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)

jogjakarta profile image

jogjakarta 6 years ago from Yogyakarta

Nice Blog

Pest Inspection Gold Coast 6 years ago

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.

RalphGreene profile image

RalphGreene 5 years ago

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

Ian VG profile image

Ian VG 5 years ago

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

Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 4 years ago from New England Author

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.

Anon 19 months ago

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

Cathy Dulay 17 months ago

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!

adevwriting profile image

adevwriting 16 months ago from United Countries of the World

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

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