Monday, October 31, 2011

Ants: Facts and Fiction, by Eleanor Spicer Rice, NCSU Entomology Dept.

Think you’re an ant expert? Quiz yourself with these quirky questions about some of our favorite insect friends. The answers may surprise you!
  1. (True/False) Most ants are pests.
  2. (True/False) All ants have nests.
  3. (True/False) There is an Argentine ant colony right now with billions of workers that spans nearly 4,000 miles.
  4. (True/False) Ant workers are both male and female.
  5. (True/False) Smaller ants never grow up to be bigger ants in the colony.
  6. Which of the following is an effective home remedy for killing fire ants? (A) dumping grits on the nest; or (B) dumping a pot of boiling water on the nest 
Time to check your super ant knowledge!

Question 1: Most ants are pests. 
This is false! In fact, most ants are NOT pests! Of the more than 30,000 ant species in existence worldwide, fewer than 100 of them are pest species. And in North Carolina alone, fewer than a dozen of the over 250 known species are pest species.

What do all of the other ant species do? Ants are a valuable part of our ecosystem. Because they fill so many jobs, from predators and scavengers to plant protectors, they play a central role in maintaining the ecological balance and biodiversity present in our natural world.

Aphaenogaster carolinensis (Photo: Alex Wild,
Some ants, like a group in North Carolina called Aphaenogaster, are responsible for planting seeds in the forest floor. Many seeds have evolved a tasty outer layer that ants love to snack on. After they remove this delicious shell, the ants plant the seeds in the ground. Without Aphaenogaster and ants like them, we would be missing a lot of our forest herbs.

Ants also protect plants from harmful insects and even aerate the soil as they dig out their nests. It has been estimated that ants turn more soil than earthworms!

Question 2: All ants have nests. 
This is also false! African driver ants and army ants do not have nests. These restless wanderers travel around without stopping, eating everything in sight. When the driver ants come through villages in Africa, residents pack up all their things and move out, allowing the ants to clean up after them. Check out the video below to see army ants in action!

Question 3: There is an Argentine ant colony right now with billions of workers that spans nearly 4,000 miles. 
It’s true! Argentine ants are little brown ants that look a lot like odorous house ants, also known as sugar ants, which are pretty common around here. Unlike odorous house ants, Argentine ants don’t fight each other, which allows them to form tremendous colonies called supercolonies like the one that spans nearly 4,000 miles of the Mediterranean coastline. We have a couple of supercolonies in North Carolina, too! Although they don’t sting, these miniature marauders are ruthless and can wipe out native ant populations when they move in. As we learned from question 1, we need our native ants!

Question 4: Ant workers are both male and female. 
False! All ant workers are females. Ant colonies have a female queen and female workers. Colonies only produce males once or twice a year. However, males don’t do any work. Their only purpose is to eat and mate (sound familiar, anyone?). After mating season is over, the female workers take girl power to a whole new level by either kicking the males out into the cold or eating them.

Fire ants range in size from 2-6mm. Nests typically contain workers in a range of sizes
(Photo: Texas A&M Univ.)
Question 5: Smaller ants never grow up to be bigger ants in the colony. 
It’s true! Although some colonies have workers of many different sizes, the littlest ones are fully grown. That’s because ants have something called complete metamorphosis. That means they’re like butterflies, flies, and beetles in how they develop from egg to adult. Just how a beetle baby is a grub, an ant baby is a grub-like larva. Ants pupate like butterflies and moths do, too. After they pupate, they emerge as fully grown ants.

Question 6: Which of the following is an effective home remedy for killing fire ants? (A) dumping grits on the nest; or (B) dumping a pot of boiling water on the nest.
The answer is B. A lot of people have tried dumping grits on a fire ant nest, but it just doesn’t work. First of all, as many North Carolinians can attest to, grits aren’t poisonous! Second of all, ants have tiny waists and can’t process grits by themselves.

Even so, some people insist they’ve poured grits on fire ant nests and come back to find the fire ants all gone. This could happen, as fire ants move around frequently and don’t like people tampering with their nests. However, it’s important to note that these fire ants just moved; they were not killed by the grits.

Dumping boiling water over the nest can put a swift end to fire ant mounds. This is because the scalding water boils the ants alive. Adding a little detergent to the water can increase effectiveness, too! The water must be boiling, however. Fire ants are used to flooding and can make rafts out of workers. If the water is not hot enough to kill them, they can just float away.

Using boiling water to treat a fire ant nest does have its limitations. First, you've got to get the boiling water outside to the nest without scalding yourself. Second, the boiling water can actually damage and/or kill any vegetation that's around the treated area. So, while it does work, boiling water is not always the most practical way to treat a fire ant nest.

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