Stronger together!

You’re walking in the woods and a Red Wood Ant crosses your path: about a centimeter long, reddish brown, with an hourglass figure, six legs and kinked antennae. She’s recognizable, sure, but easy to overlook. Unlike the metres-high ant mound she and her thousands of sisters have built!

An ant alone is a tiny, unassuming thing. But ants in a group can move mountains. They build bridges, dig tunneling networks that extend deep underground, construct entire ‘castles’ aboveground and pile up rubbish heaps. Some ants actually keep fungus gardens (which they weed and fertilize – they even use pesticides!) while others milk aphids and slaughter them for meat just like cattle. Because of the ants’ hygienic behaviour as a group, only the cleverest parasites – the ones that use sophisticated mimicry - can slip into their colony undetected.

So what is their secret? They excel at working together and dividing up tasks. There’s no ‘I’ in ant! Just like wasps, bees and termites they are ‘eusocial’: the queen is the colony’s sole reproducer while her sterile daughters – the worker ants – cooperatively take care of the other tasks. Some nurse the brood, others forage while yet others are ‘soldier ants’ that protect the colony. Males have a short lifespan and their only purpose is to mate with virgin queens. It’s this strict allocation of tasks that makes ant colonies so very efficient.

Consequently, ants are incredibly successful and important in ecological terms: on average, they make up 10-15% of the earth’s terrestrial animal biomass. Ants are like multiple spiders in the web of their own ecosystem: some are herbivores that eat and spread around seeds, others are carnivores that can control pest insects, yet others plough the soil for anything edible and in this way help to keep it healthy for other plants and animals.

So next time you come across an ant on your forest walk, why don’t you salute her? Ants are such social animals, you never know: she might even salute you back!

Photos: Aniek Ivens by Mart van de Sanden, Lasiusmier keeping aphids as cattle by Daniel Kronauer

Keywords: year of soil columns