To get to the crux of this age-old query by ant keepers, we need to know queen ants inside and out. We begin by understanding the social insects and how they exist. Ants live “in large cooperative groups called colonies.” Each colony is divided into:
The queens are adult female ants that can reproduce. They survive the longest of all known insects and can reach the ripe age of 30 years. They are also the mother of all other ants in their colony.
Can An Ant Colony Survive Without A Queen?
If there is no queen, the colony may not exist. Since some species have more than one fertile queen, killing a single mother doesn’t necessarily eradicate a colony. At times, generations may overlap in a settlement which results in many mother queens. It should be noted that “queen” is a misleading word as they do not control the entire nest. They have one job – to reproduce. They do not make decisions or have any authority. Species where there is over 1 queen are known as polygyne, whereas others are termed monogyne.
Lasius niger are strictly monogyne. If there turns out to be more than one mother queen, they will fight to the death after the first workers have hatched. In the end, only one remains victorious.
Queen Ant Identification – A How-To
You can spot a queen ant in various ways because they are easily distinguishable. If these methods fail, then hire a specialist or exterminator to identify it.
- The Size:
Queen ants have thick and large bodies when compared to other ants of the same colony. Their abdomens are also bigger. The thorax, a bridge between the neck and abdomen, is wider and bulkier in them. It is so complex and muscular that it makes more than 50% of the queen’s size. In case of fire and carpenter ants, spotting the queen just on a scale is tougher because their workers come in varied dimensions. In army ants, using the thorax to locate the queen can be hard. The thorax size of an army ant queen is tiny.
- The Wings:
Many species have queens with wings because she needs to fly to mate or create a new colony. If a queen ant has wings, it will also have wing muscles. Are all flying ants queens? The answer is no. Some males also have wings, but they are thinner and look like wasps due to their small head and bulbous eyes. Alates (explained below) are the only ones that have wings, but in few rare species, workers may have wings too.
Queens shed their wings. This leaves a bump or scar at the point where it attached to the body. It looks like broken bits of wings sticking out from the center of the ant on either side.
A queen has “three little single eyes on the forehead” which allows her to maintain stability while flying. Only exceedingly few worker species have ocelli and when they do the function and dependency is very low.
A queen ant’s disposition is to hide in moist areas like rotting wood. In a nest, she will always be found at the center.
How Does An Ant Become A Queen – Starting From Reproduction
You now know what queen ants are and how to recognize them. We next move on to how an ant becomes a queen. We think the egg came before the chicken (or ant in this case). Therefore, we start with reproduction, i.e., the laying of eggs. The mode of reproducing alters in different ant species.
- In Cataglyphis cursor, asexual parthenogenesis or cloning occurs. Since the ant doesn’t mate, all offspring are female.
- In army ants, it is the male who have the wings. So they fly out, instead of a queen, and impregnate females of other colonies.
- In some species, broods are stolen from other nests and raised as their own. In red imported fire ants and leafcutter ants there is more than one queen, so their breeding habits are even more varied.
- In genus Crematogaster, the female mates with a compatible male in flight. Known as alates, these winged ants, fertile male or female, have the sole responsibility of reproducing and making a new colony. The female goes on a long flight where she mates with a minimum of one winged male of another nest. After mating, the ‘queen’ searches for an appropriate area to start a colony. When she finally nests, she sheds her wings.
The Evolution From Egg To Queen Ant
Reproduction is complete, and the female has established a new colony. Next comes the queen ant laying eggs continuously. She uses the sperm she retained from the nuptial flight selectively. If the settlement needs infertile eggs, then she lays those or vice versa. The eggs hatch to become larvae. It is this stage that determines the adult form of an ant.
- Adult Form Determination:
Since the queen doesn’t search for food, it is the decaying wing muscles that act as the food reserve. It means that the supply of nourishment is low at the start, of a colony. The queen, thus, secretes pheromones that “retard wing growth and ovary development in the female larvae.” Therefore, the first eggs a queen lays are always workers. This brood is used to forage food for the queen and cleanliness.
- Virgin Queens
When there are more than enough workers in the nest, only then the larva turns into virgin queens. Because the level of care and nourishment larvae now receive is very high. They grow to be winged, sexually mature female ant.
A Weird Exception – The Crazy Ants
Originating in Southeast Asia, the crazy ants have a completely different breeding method. Instead of a single female flying out, mating and then starting a colony, they perform budding. In this process, a single fertile queen will break away from the main nest, which has 8 to 40 queens, along with a few workers. They establish a new settlement. This erratic behavior is confined to this invasive species that is known around the world as an environmental pest.
The Death Of Carpenter Ant Queen And Other Species
To recap, a female flies out. She mates with a male ant and then starts a new colony. Here she lays eggs and determines which will turn out to be workers and which queens. What happens when the mother queen, the ant that started the colony, passes away? The answer varies as per species.
- In monogynous ants, the colony slowly withers away.
- In polygynous ants, things tend to remain the same because there are other queens present if one dies. Only if there is no queen left alive, will the workers pack up and join another nest of the same species. This is mainly seen in the Argentine ants. Such nests, where ants move from one colony to another, are called supercolonies.
- In some ants, the laying worker phenomenon occurs where the workers start to lay eggs. These eggs are haploid because due to lack of male ant sperm. The eggs hatch to produce males (aka arrhenotoky). This event is the last effort of the ant species to spread their genes.
- In Cataglyphis cursor, two haploid eggs are fused to form a diploid zygote called automictic thelytoky, if the queen dies. This result in females. These new virgin queens fly out to make new colonies, and the original nest dies.
- In ants that have gamergates, i.e., workers with full reproductive potential, rather than true queens the death leads to a dominance struggle. Young workers will fight to become the new gamergate with mating and reproductive rights.
The Heart Resides With The Queen
The gist is that the heart of every ant colony is the queen or better said the ant which reproduces. If you find the queen and kill it or merely relocate it, then colony will disappear with time. By now you know the reason why, because there is no queen to lay more eggs and produce further ants.