There are over 12,000 species of ants and they can be found on every continent except, ironically, ANTarctica. Ants are especially abundant in tropical forests where they can make up more than half of all insects.
Ants are some of the most amazing, industrious (and bothersome) creatures in the animal kingdom. The ant is one of the world’s strongest creatures in relation to its size. Ants can regularly carry 10-50 times their own body weight. If ants were bench pressing, they could lift more than 100 times their own weight. This strength comes in handy when ants move dirt and debris to build colonies. It is estimated that within any given square mile of land, ants turn about 50 tons of soil per year.
The mandibles of the Trap Jaw Ant have been recorded to shut at speeds 140 mph. The jaws of this species can exert a force 300 times the ant’s own weight. This is useful for killing prey and can also act as a rapid propulsion system in times of danger. The ant can push its head to the ground to fling itself away in an instant.
Ants, like humans, farm other creatures. Sugar ants herd and “milk” the sap from insects like aphids and mealy bugs. The ants stroke the backs of the aphids with their antennae, which induces a honeydew droplet. The ants may steer the aphids to areas where the best plant sap may be found. In exchange, the ants look after the bugs and protect them from predators. While the process seems benign, the ants can clip the wings off aphids to stop them flying away. They also use chemicals found on their feet to drug them, preventing the aphids from developing wings.
While ants are fascinating they are also incredibly destructive. In the United States invasive fire ants cause $750 million annually in damage to livestock and crops. And the tab reaches $5 billion for damage repair, eradication, and medical treatment for painful fire ant stings. Carpenter ants add several more billion to the annual costs of controlling and eradicating destructive ant species.