Queen Ant Facts
Ants are amazing creatures. They have the largest brains of any animal in proportion to their size, and they are the smartest of insects. The ruler of the ant realm is the queen, the founder of all colonies. Like her workers, soldiers, and drones, the queen is efficient and hard-working, and she is a super-productive, egg-laying machine.
A new colony’s life cycle begins when a winged virgin queen takes to the air on a nuptial flight. During a period called “flying ant day,” queens emit pheromones to attract fertile winged males who literally explode with love. In a fast, violent ritual, the males fall down dead on the ground after their genitals detonate inside the queen. During their last act, the male partner transfers to the seminal pouch, or spermatheca, all the sperm cells the queen will need for the rest of her life.
Nuptial flights usually take place after a large rain which makes it easier for the now-fertile queen to dig a new colony in the soft, wet soil. During this phase, the queen no longer needs her wings so she removes them and uses them for food. Once the colony is established it functions like a super-organism with the queen producing the workers she needs from fertilized eggs. The queen can shut off a valve on her spermatheca to produce unfertilized eggs which grow into new virgin queens and flying fertile males. During the queen’s 20- to 30-year lifecycle, she produces millions of offspring.
Oftentimes a colony will have more than one queen. The upside to this situation is that multiple queens produce huge workforces which expand the colony and insure its survival. The downside is too many young worker ants are difficult to control and prone to revolution. In overcrowded situations, the workers decide to slaughter the excess queens. Because the queens are so much larger, with thick bodies and abdomens, individual workers can only inflict minimal damage. It can take several days of sustained biting and acid spraying before a queen dies.
Usually workers stop when only one queen is left but sometimes the frenzied killing continues until all the queens are dead. In order to prevent this evolutionary suicide, queens produce fewer workers when other queens are nearby. But murderous worker ants aren’t easily fooled. They can sniff out the most fertile queens because they produce stronger pheromones. These are most likely to be spared execution so that the colony can continue to grow.