Ants are very social and live in large colonies. Depending on the species of ant, an ant colony may have up to millions of ants living together. Ants are highly organised; this is necessary, considering the sheer number of ants that can inhabit a single colony. The ants in a colony are the queen, the workers and the males.
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Ant Colony Structure
The worker ants in ant colonies are wingless and sterile female ants. The queen is often only the fertile female in the colony. The fertile female ant, or queen, produces thousands of worker ant eggs during her lifetime. The only time the ant queen produces male ants is when the time comes to establish a new colony or during mating season. During this time, she produces both male ants and fertile female ants. The winged male ants, or drones, often die soon after mating with the new queens. The new queens then disperse and attempt to establish their own colonies.
An ant queen obtains all the sperm cells she needs to produce eggs for the rest of her life during the marriage flight with the male ants. The queen determines the sex of an ant by fertilising or not fertilising the egg during the egg-laying process using the sperm cells. An unfertilised egg results in a male ant. When the egg hatches into a larva, nutrition plays a key role in the type of female it becomes. A well-nourished female larva develops into a queen, while an undernourished female becomes a worker ant.
Ant Colony Survival Without a Queen
An ant colony may survive for the duration of the lifetime of the worker ants. When the last one dies off, the colony ends. The simple reason is that, without the queen to lay eggs, no other new member are added to the colony. Since all the workers are sterile, the ants do not survive for long without the queen. The only way they could survive is if the queen left behind some female larvae which could be nourished by the workers, so as to become a fertile queen ant. However, a very small window exists to achieve this. After the ants hatch into larvae, they only have between seven to 10 days before their fate is sealed.
Ants identify each other by smell. They secrete a scent which coats their bodies and serves as a means of identification to other members of the colony. Even though ants are social by nature, they are only sociable to members of their own colony. An ant from another colony with a different smell that tries to enter their colony is viewed as an intruder and attacked.
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