The life of our ants – an overview

Introduction

Ants are ubiquitous animals, we encounter them almost every day. But hand on heart! What do we spontaneously associate with ants? The nature lover will know about the great ecological importance of forest ants – and forget about the desperate householder who can no longer control the pesky animals. Of our 130 or so native ant species, however, only a few can be pigeon-holed into one of these categories. The moralist will praise the supposed virtues of animals with King Solomon’s sentence “Go to the ant, lazy one, consider its doings and become wise!

“assassination” often determine the lives of the ants. And finally, people in everyday life who only notice them when they suddenly come out of their nests en masse to perform their nuptial flight, without suspecting the tragedies that sometimes take place in their own garden.

Who knows that snowdrops and many other plants depend on ants for their seed dispersal; that “red ants” do not bite painfully but sting; that the “good” forest ants are actually parasites; that the anthill is not so much a dwelling as a solar collector; that some queen ants can live up to 30 years; that some ants chirp; that the wood ant “feeds” a fungus that holds its nest together; some ants smell of balm; a colony-founding queen ant feeds her own musculature to her offspring; the tiny guest ant builds her nests in forest ant hills and lives by begging; the Amazon ant would starve without slaves; the soldier closes the nest entrance of the gatekeeper ant with his flattened head; … – and are we aware that these processes and behaviors are not to be found in the tropical rainforest but on our doorstep?

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This article is intended to provide an easy-to-understand insight into the fascinating yet unknown world of native ants.

Basics

Organisation, division of labour

Three groups of adult animals live in ant colonies: fertile females (queens), infertile females (workers) and males. These so-called “castes” have different tasks to fulfil.

Only male ants and virgin queens – the sex animals – are winged whereby the queen sheds her wings soon after mating and is thus recognisable as mated. Winged ants are therefore not a separate species but are found in every ant species. However, winged ants are only found at certain times of the year. The males’ sole purpose of existence is to mate with virgin queens.

The young, mated queen has the difficult task of founding a new colony. As soon as the first workers have grown up, they take over all the necessary work, while the queen restricts herself to laying eggs. The term “queen” is misleading, because she does not control the fate of the state, but merely provides for a constant supply of offspring as the mother of the state. However, by emitting scents, she shapes the smell of the nest. Whether a colony can have one or more egg-laying queens is species-specific.

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The overwhelming majority of animals in the ant state are workers. In some species, their body size can vary greatly even within a colony. Their tasks are brood care, nest building, food procurement and defence. Basically, young workers do indoor work, older ones outdoor work. Although there are individual dispositions for certain “jobs”, they can change their activity if necessary (e.g. lack of food).

In addition to the adults, we find large quantities of brood in an ant colony. The tiny eggs hatch into larvae, which grow through several legless larval stages and finally pupate. The pupae may be naked or cocooned. The pupae are commonly referred to as “ant eggs”.called “ant eggs”.

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