August 19, 2013

Ants fascinating to watch

By JOLENE WALLACE, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — I was sitting on my front porch a few days ago and noticed a dead insect on the ground in front of me.

I couldn’t tell what it was, as it seemed too large to be anything I would expect to be lying dead on the porch. As I looked more closely, I saw that the insect, itself, was about the size of a wasp. It looked larger because it was surrounded by ants. 

I watched as the ants gathered around the insect and slowly began to carry it away. It was a fascinating procedure to watch, and I could imagine them talking to each other. 

“On three. One, two …” 

“Hey Annie, you’re not pulling your weight.” 

“To the left, Alice, the left.” 

“You got the drumstick last time, Ariel. It’s Annette’s turn to have it.” 

They moved the dead insect more than 7 feet in less than 10 minutes. It was an impressive feat to observe.

Ants have an advanced social structure. A colony consists of one or more queens, some male ants and many sterile, wingless female ants. 

The queen and the males swarm in order to mate. The males die after mating, and the queen loses her wings and lays her eggs in the nest that has been constructed by the female worker ants. The queen determines which eggs will result in a male ant and which in a female by fertilizing some with the sperm she stored while mating. Only the fertilized eggs will produce female offspring.

The ant has four growing stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. The female ants do all of the foraging and caretaking and protect the nest and the developing ants inside it. These worker ants may even move the eggs and larvae deeper into the nest if the nighttime temperatures are cold or closer to the surface of the nest if they are warm.

An ant lives for only about two months. During its lifetime, it accomplishes a great deal as part of a colony that works together for the good of the colony. Each colony has a specific scent, so the ants are aware when an outsider is present. As an ant finds a food source, she leaves a scented chemical trail behind for the other ants to follow. They use landmarks to find their way around, but this chemical “path” enables them to get back to the nest by the shortest route, even in the dark. 

Most of us only notice ants if they get into our homes, build anthills in the yard or are on our flower or vegetable plants. Certainly we don’t want ants in the house and need to take appropriate action. Outdoors, my feeling is that if we’re not tripping over the anthills in the yard, they’re not a problem. As with any insect, how you respond will be determined by your tolerance level. If you have ants on your plants, check to see if the ants are guarding aphids, as they will hang out with them in order to access honeydew, the sweet, sticky liquid that aphids secrete. The aphids can be removed with a stream of water, and the ants will be washed off as well.

I hope the next time you see a trail of ants, you make yourself comfortable and watch them for 10 minutes, or however long you can spare. They are remarkable insects and can teach us something about teamwork if we are willing to learn.

Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or