Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Ant Societies
Nature Bulletin No. 518-A   February 23, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County 
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

That first small crater-like ring of soil granules heaped up around a crack in the sidewalk is a sign of spring. Hesitate there a moment -- children always do -- and you'll see several Little Black Ants hurrying in and out, bringing up particles of earth from below as they enlarge their underground home. At another time you may see columns of them in an ant safari with two-way traffic as they cross a lawn or invade a kitchen to forage for food.

All ants live in colonies. Ants are called social insects because within each colony there is a division of labor with males, females and one or more castes of workers each performing certain tasks for the benefit of the whole group. A single colony may vary in size from a few dozen individuals up to millions. Some naturalists suppose that ants are more numerous than any other type of land animal others think that plant lice outnumber them.

In most kinds of ants a new colony is started by a young queen. Immediately after the mating flight she loses her wings, then digs a hole in the ground or finds a cavity under a rock or beneath the bark of a tree. There she walls herself in and remains for weeks or months, a voluntary prisoner. During all this time she does not eat but is sustained by stored fat and the large wing muscles which are now useless. First, eggs are laid which hatch into larvae. The queen nurses these on saliva until they transform into pupae which look like small oblong capsules and are often mistakenly called "ant eggs ". From these emerge abnormally small, wingless workers called "minims". Commonly, the three stages -- egg, larva, and pupa -- each require about three weeks.

This first brood of workers digs out of the cell and begins to gather food for itself and its mother. Then she lays more eggs, and the workers take over the care of the new larvae which appear. Because they are abundantly fed, these produce workers of a larger caste. All workers are imperfect females which rarely lay eggs. Now the colony increases rapidly. New chambers and galleries are excavated. For the remainder of her life, which may reach 15 years, the queen is merely an egg-laying machine. In later years, males and females with wings suddenly appear outside the colony and launch into their nuptial flight. These young females start new colonies and the males die a day or two later. The queens come from larvae which have been specially fed, and the males come from unfertilized eggs.

Various ants eat almost any kind of plant or animal material. Cookie crumbs -- a combination of sugar, starch and grease -- seem irresistible to many of them. They are also great scavengers, stripping flesh from the bones of dead animals and drafting away dead insects. Some kinds are best known for their habit of keeping "ant cows" -- plant lice or aphids -- from which they coax a sweet fluid called honeydew.

The Army Ants of tropical America and Africa are famous for their predatory habits. No living thing along their line of march, even man, can resist their tearing jaws. The Leaf-cutting Ants feed on fungi which grow on chewed up foliage in their subterranean "mushroom gardens". Some of our local ants raid the colonies of other kinds, carry away their pupae, and make slaves of the workers that emerge from them.

Few things are more interesting in the schoolroom than a healthy colony of ants in an observation nest. Detailed information about that is given in Service Leaflet No. 35, which may be obtained from the MacMillian Science Co., Inc., 8200 South Hoyne Avenue, Chicago 20, Illinois.

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