These little animals run our world; an estimated 322,000,000,000,000,000 ants are on Earth turning over soil and preying on other insects daily. This is a great opportunity for myrmecologists (ant specialists) to drop a little ant science.
Ants communicate chemically with glands located in or near their anus, in addition to 30 additional glands scattered around their bodies.
In Welzel’s words: “Ants are basically a walking chemical factory. There’s just glands everywhere.” Rectal glands are used to lay odor trails to help nestmates find food; they also summon help when an ant is threatened. The poison glands of ants are also located in the rear, and make formic acid.
The outer surface of ants is covered with chemicals that let them identify friend from foe. All nest-mates have a similar chemical profile, and it’s pretty oily stuff they slather themselves in daily.
The hydrocarbon profile of ants is so colony specific, invaders have to mimic them to avoid annihilation. It is possible to fool ants — some predators mimic the “smell” of an alarm pheromones, with incredible precision, sowing panic and confusion. A few spiders seem to have figured out how to remain invisible to ants chemically.
Some insects, like aphids and caterpillars, provide sugary poop treats to avoid ant attack, and ants will protect and carry them from place to place in reward.
Almost every ant you’ve ever seen in your entire life is female. “Males just don’t even matter… They’re barely ever around. They’re only there for a particular season, and when they are around they don’t have the mandibles to actually do any work.”
Stupid Ways to Die if You’re an Ant
Some of the more entertaining discussions about how an ant might meet a gruesome end involved the parasitic fungus Ophiocordyceps, which grows inside ant bodies, turns them into zombies, and eventually sprouts out of their heads with lethal force. Some parasitic flies inject their eggs inside living ants. When ready to emerge, the maggots decapitate their ant hosts. A whole host of parasitic wasp species also lay eggs inside of ants with chest-burster results later on.
In Summary: ANTS
If you want to know more about the amazing chemistry and behavior of ants, Journey to the Ants is a great book to start with, and there are some great videos explaining ant research and ant reproduction.