Slave Traders, Cooperative Peeing for Survival and Exploding Ants


Ants are social insectsI have written about ants some time back, and keep being amazed by these critters. Some of them are common and annoying pests, but some, well some are simply amazing. So, here are more fun facts about ants.

White Ants =  Termites and Ants = Wasps. Any Questions?

First of all, did you ever hear the term “white ants” for termites? We do get a lot of calls for white ant problems. Here comes an interesting common misunderstanding: White ants are termites. But then again, termites are more closely related to cockroaches than to ants. Ants on the other hand have originated from wasps, which explains why some species have a nasty sting.

We talk to communicate – Ants smell

Even though rather silent, ants have a highly developed communication; they use pheromones. You might have heard of ant tracks to food sources. Ants leave a scent track when walking back from a food source, encouraging other ants to follow the same track, thus fortifying the signal. Once the food is finished, they stop marking the trail and the signal wears off. But that is not all, ants also have specific alert pheromones; if an ant gets crushed, it emits a pheromone alerting its colony mates. There even are some ant species that use special “propaganda pheromones” in order to confuse their enemies and cause them to attack each other. Furthermore, ant colonies have their own smell which distinguishes them from other colonies. Even within a colony the certain task groups have a different smell, so that they can distinguish between the food foragers, nest workers and others.

Surviving against all odds

Did you know that there is an ant species that lives in underwater nests? They swim and breathe in air pockets in the submerged nests. Furthermore, there are several species, where the worker ants hold onto each other in case of floods and form a floating raft. They are suspected to colonize new territories this way, for example islands. Sounds a bit like Columbus making a move for America?

There is a bamboo-nesting ant species, Cataulacus muticus, which lives in Malaysia. At times it rains a lot and their nest is under the threat of drowning. What would be our solution to this problem? Right, take a bucket and get to work scooping the water out. Ever thought of drinking the water and then relieve yourself outside? That’s exactly what these ants do: Cooperative peeing to save the colony!

Suicidal tendencies anyone? Turn it into a social activity! The so-called Exploding Ants (Camponotus cylindricus) have workers with specialized anatomies that allow them to “pull a trigger” when under threat and the explode. With the explosion, they release a chemical cocktail that will affect and immobilize smaller insect attackers. Now that is some dedication to the colony. It would also make our pest control job much easier if other ants would be like this. Just disturb them and watch the show, hahaha.

Cattle farmers and gardeners

The Leafcutter ants of South America cut pieces out of leaves, but only a few people know that they are not actually then eating the leaves. They rather use them as a cultivation medium for a fungus, grown in the so-called fungus garden. They will only eat their own farm produce.

A large number of ant species have developed a close relationship with aphids, andthe caterpillars of some smaller butterflies (such as hairstreaks, coppers and blues). The relationship is straightforward: Ants milk their “cattle” for the so-called honey-dew and offer protection from natural predators in return for the favour. Sometimes ants even house the cattle inside their nests and transport them to feeding places during the day time (too bad if it is your expensive new garden plants), and take them back to the nest in the evening.

Slave Traders and Amazons

There are innumerous ways of one ant species taking advantage of another, the following two are somewhat outstanding examples:

Ravoux’s Slavemaker Ant, has a somewhat ingenious way of taking over entire colonies. The queen fakes death and thus attracts other ants to drag her to their nest, where she miraculously resurrects, kills the nest’s original queen and aquires her smell (in order to trick the other ants into believing nothing has changed) and then starts laying eggs and taking over the colony. I think this is an extreme case of changing the system from within.

Amazon ants, on the other hand, have evolved to such a state where living without slaves would mean sure death. They are not able to feed themselves and require captured workers to survive. They commonly raid other ant colonies (but seemingly in a non-bloody way, the raided ants are simply stunned by the huge number of slave makers entering their nest, and prefer to flee). They steal the victim’s pupae and hatch them in their own nest (which again has to be done by slaves). Once the new ants are hatched they acquire the smell of the colony, and hence become a part of the loyal workforce. Incredible? It gets better, the slave species are quietly revolting: They kill the female pupas of the Amazon ants (those who do the raids) and leave only males, slowly weakening their ruling class. I think if you replace ants with humans in this case, you would have the story line for the next Hollywood blockbuster, hahah.

Operation? Anybody?

One last note, did you know that even though some ants are pests in hospitals (such as the Pharaoh’s Ant), others are used as surgical sutures. Army ants are allowed to bite in a cut wound, connecting both sides of the cut. Then, their body is torn off, and the mandibles will remain locked allowing the wound to heal. Should you ever happen to get stuck in a South American rain forest and have a major cut, you might consider this option. (Maybe an interesting idea for “I am a celebrity, get me out of here“)

Again, I have mostly concentrated on the amazing aspects of ants. Next time I will deal with negative effects of invasive pest ant species, ants in the home and their sometimes negative effects on our health and property.

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