Ants are one of the most successful groups of animals on earth.
They have colonised practically every land-mass on the planet, and ifs been estimated that these small social insects could constitute up to 15% of the biomass of a tropical rainforest.
Ants are members of the order Hymenoptera, and belong to their own family within that order, the Formicidae. Worldwide 11,844 species of ant have been described to date (January 2006), and experts believe that there are about another 1 0,000 Species out there still to be discovered.
Here in County Kerry and the whole of Ireland we play host to just eleven of those species but that relatively low species diversity doesn`t make these fascinating little creatures any lees important our environment. Because they occur in such vast numbers ants play a vital role in any thriving ecosystem.
Their burrowing activity helps to aerate, drain and enrich the soil as they carry all sorts of organic matter down into their nests. Ants are important predators of numerous invertebrate species, and play a variety of roles in the life-cycles of several others.
They are part of nature`s undertaker team, cleaning up and recycling the remains of small dead animals and returning nutrients to the environment. Many species also play an important role in distributing plant seeds that they collect for food.
Ants typically have a large head and a slender oval abdomen that`s Joined to the thorax (mid-section) by a small waist The mouth has two sets of jaws... a large outer set used for biting, carrying objects and digging, and an inner set used for chewing.
One of the things that make ants such a force in ecological terms is also what makes them such interesting creatures: the social aspect of their biology. Ants live in colonies that range from, a few hundred individuals to several million animals. These highly structured societies generally consist of three castes: queens (reproduction female,), sterile female worker, and males.
Each year, typically In July or August, queens lay eggs that develop into winged reproductive females (new queens and males. These flying ants swarm simultaneously and mate to establish new colonies.
It`s not uncommon to encounter huge numbers of flying ants during a brief period in summer, as many local colonies will swarm simultaneously. This increases the likelihood that male and females from different colonies will mate, reducing the risks of inbreeding and helping to maintain genetic diversity. Males die soon after mating and the females shed their wings and look for a suitable place to start a new colony.
The queen spends her whole life laying eggs. When she establishes a new colony she cares for the first brood herself. The life-cycle of an ant has four stages — egg, larva, pupa and adult — and typically spans a period of from 8 to 10 weeks. Once the first batch of workers reach adulthood they take over the running of the nest — doing all the work foraging, feeding the queen, rearing the young, defending the colony against attack, maintaining and expanding the nest and anything else that needs doing.
Ants feed on a wide range of foods, and their diet typically includes both plant and animal matter. Many feed on the eggs or larvae of other ant species, and even those of neighbouring colonies of the same species. Some, including our most common ant, the small black ant or black garden ant (Lasius niger), “farm” aphids, patrolling their flocks and defending them against predators. In return the ants feed on the honeydew the aphids secrete. Still others cultivate gardens of fungi within in their nests as a food source.
Ants are truly amazing creatures. Their social behaviour is among the most complex in the insect world, and, directly or indirectly, the activity of ants affects almost every living thing on earth. Small they may be; insignificant they most certainly are not!