Ant Lifespan and Breeding Facts
A person who studies ants is called a myrmecologist, and America’s foremost myrmecologist, E.O. Wilson, discovered the first U.S. colony of fire ants in the mid-1930 at the age of 13. As Wilson describes the ant, “The organism does not live for itself. Its primary function is not even to reproduce other organisms; it reproduces genes, and it serves as their temporary carrier.”
With their “hive minds” in high gear at all times, ants are prolific breeders, and their reproduction cycle is pretty amazing. Each colony is dedicated to one queen who controls the sex of her offspring by hatching some eggs that are fertilized, some that are not. Unfertilized eggs develop into winged males whose sole purpose is to fertilize the queen. Fertilized eggs produce wingless workers. They also produce virgin queens, but only when the queen determines there are enough workers to expand the colony.
While most ants only live about 3 months, the queen is the “Energizer bunny” of the ant kingdom. The queen of the South American leafcutter ant produces 150 million workers during her 14-year life span.
A new colony begins when massive swarms of winged males and virgin queens take to the air on their romantically charged nuptial flight. In fire ant colonies, hundreds of thousands of queens take to the air within an hour. Fortunately, most of these protein-rich egg machines are eaten by birds, frogs, beetles, and centipedes. Only a few survive.
The queens who survive lose their wings and dig new nests. Forty to sixty days later, a crop of workers emerges. As a single mom, the queen raises the first brood on her own. The workers enlarge the nest, groom the queen, and transport new eggs into special hatching chambers. The colony continues to expand, and in the case of Argentine ants, the nests can turn into massive super-colonies. In 2008 three Argentine ant super-colonies were discovered in Europe, Japan, and California. The “Californian large” colony, stretched 560 miles along the coast, contains over a billion workers and millions of queens. One of the myrmecologists who discovered the super-colony stated that “[the] enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society.”