In most cases, the beginning of a new ant colony is marked by the nuptial flight, which takes place at different times of the year and day depending on the species. During this flight, the males and virgin queens swarm out to mate. While the males die soon afterwards, the queens fly to a new habitat.
When the queen finds a suitable habitat, she continues her search for the future nest site on the ground. She breaks off the remaining, no longer needed wings via a predetermined breaking point at the base of the wing, sets up a nesting chamber, starts laying eggs and raises the first brood. When the first workers appear, they carry out all the necessary activities. Lack of food during colony establishment leads to small-sized first workers. While the number of workers increases steadily, breeding animals are not produced until the following year at the earliest. Only then is the colony foundation completed.
During the so-called nuptial flight, the queen lays a store of seeds for the rest of her (multi-year) life, whereby the fertilisation of an egg takes place only shortly before the laying of the eggs and is controlled by the mother. Males develop from unfertilised eggs, female castes from fertilised eggs. Whether an egg ultimately develops into a queen or a worker is influenced by a combination of various factors (e.g. egg size, larval food, pheromones of the queen, larval hibernation), which vary among ant species.
What does social mean?
An obvious characteristic of ants is their social way of life. In fact, apart from the colony
ants, apart from the colony-founding queen, do not live individually.
In insects, several stages of social coexistence are distinguished. The most important stages are: Brood care (subsocial), shared brood care by fertile group members (quasisocial) and finally brood care by infertile group members (eusocial). Seen in this way, humans have not yet reached the highest social level and would have to be described as quasi-social.
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Therefore, ant states are not directly comparable with human states. In eusocial, i.e. “genuinely social” societies, one tends to speak of “superorganisms”, i.e. not the individual animal but the whole state is regarded as an individual, comparable to the cells of an organism.
Ants live in anonymous societies. Their cohesion is brought about by the nest odor, which enables them to distinguish between friend and foe. Of great importance for most ant species is the “social stomach”, the contents of which do not belong to the individual but to the colony. Strangled food is passed on from ant to ant. In this way, the “field service” supplies the “inside service” and finally “wet nurses” the larvae, “yard maids” the queens. In a food chain over many animals, there is an even distribution of the food flow, and a lack of food is quickly recognized by the superorganism.
Besides ants, we find eusocial life forms in most wrinkled wasps, some species of bees, all termites and – surprisingly – also in a rodent, the African naked mole-rat Heterocephalus glaber. From the point of view of evolutionary theory, the fact that the majority of individuals of a species do not have their own offspring seems downright paradoxical. Charles Darwin already saw this as the greatest stumbling block for his theory of evolution.
A sticking point of the theory of evolution?
The overwhelming majority of an ant colony are barren workers who devote their entire lives to the reproduction of others. Since such animals cannot inherit their selflessness, they should not exist from an evolutionary point of view. In fact, selflessness is meaningful and heritable if the following condition is met.
Overview of native ants
Of the more than 12,000 species of the family Formicidae (ants) worldwide, about 130 from five subfamilies are found in Austria. In everyday life, we mainly encounter representatives of the two large subfamilies of scaled ants and ants. They are named after the shape of the stipe, which in the one case is a vertical scale, in the other case consists of two nodular segments. The Myrmica rubra, popularly known as the “red ant”, does not bite us unpleasantly, but stings and injects a poison.