Just like termites, most bee species, and many wasp species, ants are social insects that live in colonies. One single ant colony can contain anywhere from a few hundred individual ants to more than 10,000 individual ants, depending on species and colony-age. Many ant species, such as Pharaoh ants and many carpenter ant species, can form colonies that contain more than 10,000 individuals. A particularly large colony can consist of several secondary nests that surround the original primary nest that houses the queen, or multiple queens. For example, a single mature carpenter ant colony may consist of many interconnected nests that cover a large area of land. Pharaoh ant colonies can grow to contain over 300,000 individuals with as many as 200 queens, each one of which can leave the original colony in order to initiate an additional colony elsewhere. This form of colony dispersal is known as “budding,” and some ant species rely solely on budding as opposed to swarming in order to disperse.
All individual ants within a colony are divided into different groups, or “castes,” such as workers and wingless females, both of which are responsible for carrying out many tasks including foraging, nest construction, and offspring care. Colonies also contain at least one queen ant that lays numerous eggs daily. Workers feed and protect larval ants, and once larvae reach their most mature state, they produce cocoons where they pupate and eventually emerge as adults. People often spot ant cocoons beneath rocks and wood piles, but they are usually mistaken for eggs. After a few years of maturation, most colonies start to produce winged reproductives that take flight from existing colonies in order
to mate and establish new colonies elsewhere. Winged reproductives are known as “alates,” and most ant species produce alates that swarm each year during the spring or summer on calm sunny days following rainfall. Ant swarms can be alarming to homeowners when they occur within neighborhoods or within structures, such as garages and even homes. Luckily, alates are largely harmless, and they never return to the colonies in which they emerge.
Have you ever encountered an ant swarm?