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Fire ants are one of the most notorious ant species throughout the US. The life cycle of the fire ant and its colony is fascinating in its complexity. In this post we look at the different stages each ant goes trough.
There are several different species, with some being native to our shores. But others are invaders from elsewhere. The European species is one such invader, but the most famous is the red imported fire ant or RIFA. This creature was brought to the US from South America in the 1930s via cargo shipping and has since spread throughout the southern states. More aggressive and territorial than other species, it has been able to out-compete different types of ant and often comes into conflict with humans. It’s estimated that within its range, over 50% of people have been stung by this creature.
As highly social creatures, fire ants have a complicated life cycle. All species undergo complete metamorphosis. This means that the adult form of the creature looks nothing like the juveniles. And because these critters are so social, each stage of their life comes with different responsibilities and an ever-changing place within the colony.
Fire ants are more aggressive than other species and often comes into conflict with humans
So let’s take a look at the life cycle of the fire ant. Because understanding a pest’s biology is the best way to learn how to battle against it. In particular, we will take a look at the four stages all ants go through from birth to death.
All fire ants begin their life as eggs. The eggs are laid by a queen, who is sometimes the only reproductive member of the colony. But she is not always alone. Some colonies have more than one member capable of laying eggs. Nests with a single queen tend to be more aggressive, and a single queen lays more eggs than a queen who is one of many. A single one can lay up to 1500 eggs per day, producing the equivalent of her own body weight in eggs.
A single fire ant queen can lay up to 1500 eggs per day
The development time required for the eggs varies according to temperature. As a general rule, the warmer it is, the quicker the eggs will hatch out. In the height of the southern summer, eggs can hatch in as little as six days. But in cooler temperatures, they could take a month or so to hatch.
Fire ant queens can lay both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. They do this using the store of sperm that they keep in their bodies from mating. Fertilized eggs produce females, most of which go on to become workers. Some of them, however, may become queens of their own. Meanwhile, the unfertilized eggs develop into males. Males have a very specialized role in the colony, which we’ll get into later.
A larvae is effectively a baby ant. And these creatures look nothing like their parents. When they emerge, they are white, wormlike creatures with soft bodies and no limbs. Unlike the adults, these larvae are entirely defenseless. They need full-time care just to stay alive and develop into the next stage of the lifecycle. For this reason, adult workers tend to the larvae constantly, feeding them, cleaning them, and moving them to new locations inside the nest depending on environmental conditions. Without adults to take care of them and protect them, the larvae wouldn’t last long. In fact, the entire reason fire ants have developed their ability to sting is to protect the larvae and the queen.
The larvae may be helpless. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless. In fact, these juveniles perform a vital role in the colony. In many ways, these juveniles, known as the brood, function as the stomach of the nest.
Fire ants have developed their ability to sting to protect the larvae and the queen.
Fire ants are omnivores, consuming a broad range of different types of food. So it surprises many people to learn that adults, the bugs we most commonly see foraging for food, can’t eat solids at all. Inside their mouths are a series of brush-like structures which only allow liquids to pass. Solid food is useless to them.
However, larvae can and do eat solid food. So foraging workers will bring back solid food and give it to the brood. Once the larvae have fed, they secrete a highly nutritious liquid that the adults consume. In this way, the adults are entirely reliant on the young, and will unhesitatingly die in their defense. Without the brood, the whole colony is lost.
Interestingly, the destiny of an ant can be decided in this larval stage. Larvae that receive an adequate amount of food grow up to become workers, all of which are sterile females incapable of reproduction. But certain larvae are fed a much better diet. These larvae will ultimately go on to become reproductive adults, and eventually start their own colonies.
Just as in the egg stage, the amount of time an ant spends as a larva varies according to temperature. Typically, it takes anywhere from 12 to 32 days to develop into the next stage.
In the pupal stage, the creatures go dormant. They stop eating and focus all of their energy on developing. It’s in this stage that the juveniles begin to look like the adults. They grow legs and the distinctive body segments of the adults, and darken from their initial white color to the brownish-red they will appear for the rest of their lives.
Finally, the insect emerges from his pupal stage as a fully formed adult. Ants are born knowing exactly what their role in life is, and they get to work immediately. But the tasks that they will perform vary according to the type of adult they’ve become.
The most common type of ant is a worker. The workers perform all of the tasks necessary for the colony’s survival, except for reproduction. Workers are incapable of reproducing. Instead, they focus their efforts on taking care of the queen and her offspring – their brothers and sisters, effectively.
The youngest workers become what’s known as nurse ants. The role of these creatures is to take care of the queen and the brood. The larvae need to be cleaned and moved from time to time, and it’s these young workers that perform these tasks. One of the reasons fire ants are so difficult to control is that they will sometimes relocate the entire colony en masse. These young workers are the ones that will carry every egg, larva, and pupa, as well as the queen herself, to a new location.
In times of flooding, RIFA workers will even create a raft out of their bodies to carry the brood to safety. This highly complex behavior is fascinating to witness, but it’s important to remember that the insects are at their most aggressive at this time. Since they have no nest to hide in, these homeless bugs will sting anything that comes close. Given that the survival of the colony rests on the survival of the queen and the brood, these workers fulfil a very important role.
When a fire ant worker grows older, her duties change. Older ants are responsible for the defense, maintenance, and expansion of the nest. These are the warriors that will emerge to sting anything they perceive as a threat when the nest is disturbed. They also hollow out tunnels and chambers for the queen and her brood to live in. It’s these girls that raise the sometimes quite large mounds of soil that give fire ant colonies such a distinctive look.
After performing this role for a while, the ant’s responsibilities change one more time. The oldest become foragers, whose task is to leave the nest and seek out food. Their job is to bring back any food they find and feed it to the larvae so that they can digest it and feed the rest of the colony. Not only the queen and the brood but also the nurse ants and the middle-aged workers are dependent on this activity. The oldest members of ant society are therefore critical to the colony. However, they also expendable. This is why killing foraging workers will never solve a problem by itself. When you have a bug that can lay 1500 eggs a day, it’s easy for the nest to produce more workers.
Adult fire ants can live for as little as 35 days in warm temperatures, so the transition from one role to the next can happen quickly. However, in cooler temperatures, their metabolism slows down, causing them to live longer. In the winter, worker ants can live for months.
For the vast majority of these creatures, becoming a foraging worker is the end of the line. After having taken care of the queen and her brood, then helped to maintain the nest, they will end their life by bringing food back for the others.
But some ants have a different fate in store for them. These are the reproductive ants that create new colonies of these pests.
As mentioned above, some larvae receive a better diet than others. Those that do grow up to become reproductive females. These reproductive females can be distinguished from the others by their larger size and the fact that they have wings. Ants are closely related to wasps, and it’s easy to see that fact when you look at a winged fire ant. Yes, these creatures can fly. At least, some of them can, at certain times of the year.
Reproductive females start out as regular eggs and larvae before being fed the diet that makes them reproductive. Males, on the other hand, are born different. They hatch from unfertilized eggs laid by the queen. All of the males are capable of reproduction, and just like the female reproductives, they have wings and can fly. In fact, reproduction is the only purpose of a male ant’s existence. His entire role in life is to mate and die.
On a warm day, typically between 70 and 95°F, winged individuals will emerge from the nest. This usually happens within 24 hours of rain, either before or after. The male and female reproductives, called alates, take to the air, often flying hundreds of feet up. As they do so, the females emit a mating pheromone that attracts the males. The males chase the females, and the females fly as high and as far as they can to ensure that only the fittest and strongest males can reach them. The ants mate in the air, and the males die immediately afterward.
The females live on. These alates can be carried on the wind for huge distances, but will eventually find a place to start a new colony. Because fire ants are territorial, these mated bugs will look for areas that currently have no population of other fire ants. Once they’ve found a place that fits their criteria, they will dig a small chamber in the soil and lay around 25 eggs.
While the new queen waits for these eggs to hatch, she will live by digesting the wing muscles she used for her flight. She will also regurgitate this digested muscle to feed the first generation of her new nest. This first generation will grow into small adult workers that will then begin to take care of the queen and the subsequent eggs that she lays. As they age, they will also expand and maintain the colony and forage for food. From that point on, the queen’s only role in the nest is to lay eggs. The workers perform every other job.
Fire ant queens can live for seven years. At a rate of 1500 eggs every day, it’s easy to see how many offspring a single bug can have in her lifetime.
A Fire Ant’s Life
The lifecycle of the red imported fire ant it’s fascinating in its complexity. In many ways, it’s more complicated than that of most animals, including us. There’s no denying that humans are inherently social creatures. But we humans are not nearly as social as these fire ants are. An individual cannot survive without the colony. Helpless as a juvenile and unable to digest solid food as an adult, an ant relies on its siblings at every stage of its lifecycle.
This is part of the explanation behind the astonishing success of the species. These bugs are one of the most widespread and numerous groups of animals in the world. Despite their small size, there are so many ants in the world that they are estimated to make up a solid 20% of the mass of all living creatures on the planet. Our own species, successful as we are, doesn’t come anywhere near to those numbers. And they’ve survived and thrived despite the concerted efforts of the planet’s apex predator – humans – actively trying to eradicate them.
For an ant, nothing matters besides the colony. The life of an individual is worthless and utterly dependent on the survival of the social organization of the nest. This is why these ants are fearless in attacking creatures hundreds of times their size in defense of the nest. And it’s this aggressiveness that brings them into conflict with us over and over again.
But from a pest control perspective, it’s essential to understand how their society is structured, and the various stages of their lifecycle. This creature’s dependence on its colony can be both its greatest strength and its most significant weakness. Pest control efforts are best focused on the brood, since this is the only way to eradicate the colony. Wiping out adults is never going to take down a nest.
Fire ants have such a high level of organization that a colony is often thought of as a superorganism. In the same way as our bodies are made up of individual cells, all doing their own tasks to benefit the overall health of the organism, individual ants live their whole lives in the service of their nest. It’s often helpful to think of a colony as one single organism, with the brood functioning as a stomach and the queen as the reproductive organs.
Successful treatment requires focusing on the entire superorganism, and not the individual members.
But even as we devise and refine new strategies to use against these insects, it’s hard not to admire the level of cooperation and social organization they exhibit. When it comes to cooperation and complex social roles, ants are more like us than we may want to acknowledge.