Reflections in Nature: 10,000 ant species

10,000 ant species

In June, ants invaded our kitchen. My wife Mary Alice immediately went into combat mode.

Her first attack was to put out a few basil leaves. She had read in a gardening book that basil and mint leaves could be used to repel ants; however, the basil did not work.

Ant traps also were useless.

The ants seemed to be coming from the area behind the molding on the countertop so I removed the molding and sprayed the area with ant killer. So far, there has been a lull in our battle with the ants.

Ants are truly fascinating creatures. There are more than 10,000 known species around the world.

It is estimated that there are about 1 million ants for every human on earth.

In the Saharan desert, where temperatures climb to 140 degrees, there is an ant that is active during the heat of the day. These ants withstand higher ground temperatures than any other animal on earth.

When other animals are taking refuge to escape the heat, the Saharan silver ants burst out of their nest holes, into the blazing noonday sun, to go hunting.

During the heat of the day, the lizards are in the burrows they built near the ants’ nest holes. They come out at night when it is cooler.

Since the ants would be easy prey at night, they wait until the searing heat drives the lurking lizards into their burrows.

The heat is so intense that the ants will climb every small stalk of vegetation encountered, creating a small cooling-off area and allowing them to be above the searing sand.

Compare beachgoers who have forgotten their flip-flops to the ants that try to touch the ground as little as possible. The ants use alternate hips and hops, sometimes with two of their six legs held up in the air, while running across the hot sand. These ants don’t walk — they always run.

Although all of the ants leave the burrow at the same time, each goes off alone to find food. They scavenge on dead and dying creatures.

An ant can travel a third of a mile in search of food, often crisscrossing the desert floor. Once food is found, the ants head for home.

Unlike most ants that lay down a chemical scent trail, these desert ants do not re-trace their steps but make a beeline directly back to their nests. They are guided by the patterns of polarized light that arc the desert sky.

In the uppermost part of the ant’s eye, there is a region specialized to read the celestial sky. While foraging, the ants must continually work out their direction and distance to home. If unable to make a straight line back to their nest, the ants succumb to the heat.

A foraging ant could return 20 times its weight in food over the course of its short life, which only lasts an average of six days.

After a hard day’s hunt, an exhausted ant scoots back into its hole, pulling grains of sand behind to close the door. As evening sweeps across the desert, all traces of the nest hole disappears. Now, the lizards come out to hunt; however, the only ants found are those that have succumbed to the intense heat.

While heat is a problem for the Saharan Silver ants, the fire ants of the

Amazon are plagued by water during the rainy season. However, by doggy

paddling, the ants can float for a period of time. During a period of

flooding, the fire ant must be able to spend a long time in the water. In

order to do this, thousands of ants lock their legs together to create a

raft that will float with the current. This raft is occupied by the queen

and the young. They are kept high and dry on the raft to ensure survival.

After the flood water recedes and the raft finally comes in contact with

land, the ants unlock their legs; crawl up on dry land and go about the

business of starting a new colony.

Ants have amazing strength. They have the ability to carry up to 50 times

their own weight. An Asian weaver ant can lift 100 times its own body

weight. Remember this song sung by Frank Sinatra?

Just what makes that little old ant

Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant Anyone knows an ant can’t move a

rubber tree plant But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes He’s got

high apple pie, in the sky hopes So any time you’re gettin’ low ‘Stead of

lettin’ go Just remember that ant Oops! There goes another rubber tree


Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.