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The secret of ants’ success

As far too many of us know, August in Cyprus is ant heaven. A plate of food left uncleared and unwashed on the kitchen side can be swarming with ants within minutes.

We get so obsessed with getting rid of the pesky things that we tend to overlook just how fascinating and efficient ants are.

They are social, strong, well organised – and overwhelming numerous. Scientists say that there are about one million of them for every human being.

These social insects live in very large groups called colonies. Depending on the species, ant colonies can consist of millions of insects. According to the BBC, a giant colony of invasive Argentinian ants stretching 6000 km or 3750 miles was discovered in Europe in 2009. Although they usually exist in smaller groups in their homeland, the colonies merged to create one massive super colony. Such giant colonies have also been discovered in other countries.

The concentration of so many insects also means that they can arrive in great numbers to have a go at whatever they want to eat.

And as they are omnivores, that is pretty much everything.

Their strength also helps. Though tiny, they can lift at least 20 times their weight, which makes them one of the strongest animals around. Some species can even lift 100 times their weight.

While we all have seen ants travelling in a file carrying stuff, fewer of us are aware of exactly how they transport their – or our – food.

It works like this: some of them act as food scouts roaming around in the vicinity of their nest. While they do that, they move around hesitantly, as they can’t see and therefore don’t know where they are going. They do know, though, how to get back from where they come from.

feature annette - antThis is because when ants move, they leave a chemical trail made of pheromone which they can follow back. So when they have found a food source, they make their way back to the nest without delay to lead the others to it. They then use the same trail to get back to the food, one behind the other, as we so often see it.

Having said that, they don’t always travel in single file. When they transport big heavier pieces, they also know exactly how many of them are needed to carry one piece together, and they travel in exactly the same direction.

As they are social, they don’t keep all the food to themselves. They have two stomachs, one for themselves and a social one to feed others. This enables some ants to stay and look after the nest while others forage for food.

Apart from transporting food, the insects are also involved in many other activities, many of which have a positive influence on our environment. Like bees, they are a vital part of our ecosystem, airing the soil for plant roots to grow. According to Edward O Wilson, sociobiologist at Harvard University and the world’s leading authority on social insects ants are the main turners of the soil – more important than earthworms. They also aid with the suppression of pest populations.

So do we really want to kill these amazing creatures off? We do have an ambiguous relationship with them stemming from their efficiency in collecting food so most of us do want them out of the way.

However, it is completely unnecessary to drown them in chemicals to get rid of them as there are many other ways apart from such sprays to get rid of these unwanted invaders.

One method is to simply deprive them of food – don’t leave anything edible around for the scouts to find.

Another way is to get them to abandon using a chemical trail by confusing or repelling them. There are many traditional ways to do this. They involve smell as ants don’t like strong smells. The insects can perceive smells with their antennae, and can determine the direction and intensity of scents.

It helps to sprinkle some flour or to put some vinegar or lemon in the corners of your kitchen or the cracks where they come from. Many herbs and spices also do the trick, such as bay leaves, sage, cinnamon or cloves which often have the added benefit of smelling pleasantly while discouraging the ants.

They also don’t like the smell of chalk – so simply draw a line that you don’t want them to cross.

 

Ant facts

There are between one and ten quadrillion ants on earth, and they live in most regions with the exception of Antarctica and some islands.

More than 14,000 species of an estimated 22,000 have been classified so far.

What we usually see are the wingless common adult ants, known as workers. There are also winged forms of ants which leave their nests to mate in warm weather.

Ant communities are headed by a queen or several queens, whose function in life is to lay thousands of eggs that will ensure the survival of the colony. Some queens can have millions of offspring. The queens can live for up to 30 years, around 100 times as long as solitary insects of a similar size.

Workers live from 1 to 3 years. They are females who never reproduce, but instead forage for food, care for the queen’s offspring, work on the nest, protect the community, and perform many other duties.

Males are quite short-lived and survive for only a few weeks. Male ants often have only one role – mating with the queen. After they have performed this function, they may die.

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