How ants mate? — Victor’s student essay

How Ants Mate?

The reproduction of ants is a complex process and one which is the product of their complex societal structure which arose from their need to survive throughout a variety of ecosystems. To preface this this essay it should first be noted that ants are one of the most populous species on the planet with an estimated population (according to acclaimed myrmecologist Edward Osborne Wilson) of 1-10 quadrillion, and according to Raid® over 12,000 different species. 

The reproduction of ants is a cycle. Ants are first born as small cream-colored eggs which are tended to by workers. Once the ants hatch they become larvae, which resemble grubs, it is beginning at this stage that the separation of ants by caste (and eventually their role in reproduction) begins.

According to the journal “Caste Determination in a Polymorphic Social Insect: Nutritional, Social, and Genetic Factors” by the University of Chicago Press Journals, the social caste which ants are assigned to is the result of a nature/nurture relationship, nature factors determining the role of ants include both gender and genetic capability to grow, while nurture factors are reliant upon what the ants are fed/nurtured with, the resulting caste they are assigned to is based on size and gender with the largest female ants becoming queens, next largest becoming large workers, and the next largest becoming small workers, whereas males are assigned solely to reproduction and die shortly after mating.

ant workers

It is after maturing that the reproductive process of ants begins, once a queen ant (who is reproductively capable) matures it will grow wings and leave the original colony in search of a mate from another colony in order to avoid any possible inbreeding which may result in defects, these new queen ants disperse with the assistance of winged males, and both are referred to as alates.

After finding a suitable partner(s) both the queen and male(s) will lose their wings, the males will die and the queen (given she survives long enough to reach this point) will search for a suitable spot to build a new colony and will then dig a nest, lay eggs, and raise her first brood which will consist entirely of worker ants. 

From this point the queen will begin choosing the gender of her offspring, with fertilized eggs becoming females, and unfertilized eggs becoming males, and once the colony becomes large enough to expand virgin queens will be born and the process will begin anew, it should additionally be noted that this process may take one or several years.

As an addendum to the prior research, it should be noted that there are instances in which species of ant deviate from the normal reproductive behaviors. For instance, when the queen of a fire ant colony dies the rest of the colony dies with her this is because fire ant queens do not leave successors. 

Another instance of deviation from the standard process is that some species of ant have multiple queens, and while uncommon species can have up to thousands of queens in a colony, in some rare instances ant species will form super colonies such as the Formica Yessensis which is a Japanese ant species that has “super colonies” containing millions of queens.

While it should be noted that in many observed cases multiple queens worked together within a colony, species with multiple queens may also engage in reproduction through a process referred to as “budding” budding is a process through which queens from an established multiple queen colony leave the colony without mating swarms and instead take a group of worker ants with them to establish a new nest site which still maintains the relationship between the queen and workers, which is the result of the workers providing aid in establishment and maintenance of the newly founded colony, it should dually be noted that this species which engage in this process are among the most difficult to control the spread of.

To summate the reproduction of ants is a complex process, but to simplify a queen ant must engage in copulation with a male ant, the queen will store the sperm of the male and will apply it to her eggs in order to create female ants( Workers and queens) and in order to produce males she will leave the eggs to hatch without fertilizing them and they will in turn fertilize the new queen and the process begins anew.

Author: Victor Mendoza

Arizona State University
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