Ants are everywhere, or so it seems. In Alberta, ants are the dominant earth movers and aerators, and except in gardens and other cultivated places, are more important than worms in that role. In fact, after the last Ice Age, there were no worms left at all in Alberta (except maybe the Cypress Hills). The job of tilling the soil belonged to the ants. Inevitably, as people made their way westward, animals, intentionally and accidentally came along for the ride, including earthworms.
In Alberta, we have two big subfamilies of ants – the Myrmecinae, which includes the Harvester ants and the foreign Pavement Ant - and the Formicinae, which includes the many species of Wood Ants and the big Carpenter Ants.
Alberta’s ants are primarily predators or scavengers. Some ants are attracted to sweets, such as the honeydew of aphids. Harvester ants gather seeds, and may cut down vegetation in the vicinity of the nest but otherwise do not chew plants. Ants on plants are usually looking for prey or aphids to get their sweet ‘fix’.
All ants are social and form colonies. In Alberta, the colonies are subterranean or partly subterranean in the case of the Carpenter Ants. Ants prefer warm, dry, airy soil for nesting and avoid wet ground.
Colonies can be big or small, depending on the species, and may last for years, if not decades. Colonies consist of one or more queens who do all the egg laying and workers, who are all sterile females. In some species, there may be more than one type of worker – such as soldiers or guards with big heads and well-developed jaws. Eventually there will be a generation of winged male ants.
The sole purpose of the short-live male ants is to fly off and find fertile winged females to mate with. These nuptial flights are timed so that all the males and fertile young queens of a species swarm at once. Look for winged ants on a still, warm late summer’s day. At least some of the females will be mated and able to start a new colony. The males, having fulfilled their purpose, soon die.
Once mated the queen has all the ‘ammo’ she needs to produce the future colony occupants. She looks for a suitable nesting place and bites off her wings, which are of no further use. She prepares a chamber and lays some eggs. She tends and feeds the first colony members but soon they take over the role of provider and colony builder and the queen remains in the nest to lay eggs. Some species supplement their numbers by raiding the nests of other species and carrying away the pupae, which complete their lives as workers in the raider’s colony.
The lives of ants are diverse and endlessly fascinating. Every bugwatcher should read “Journey to the Ants” by Hölldobler and E.O Wilson as well as “The Earth Dwellers” by Hoyt. You will never feel blasé about ants again.
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