It is sometimes easy to forget about the little critters of the microscopic world. Crawling around in a tiny world, so intricately connected to our own, are over 900 million different species of insect.
Some of the most profound, and interesting species are the ants, and there is no shortage of them! There are over 12,000 known species of ants and the total biomass of all the ants in the world is believed to be roughly equal to the biomass of humans; scientists estimate that for every human alive, there are 1.5 million of them!
One particular type of ant, probably caught most of our attentions when we were very young; the fire ant (or to clarify; ants of the solenopsis genome). Many of us probably had our first encounter in the form of a sharp burning sensation when we sat in the way of one; hence the name “fire ant”. Yes, the fire ant is perhaps most notorious for it’s brutal sting.
Other ants tend to bite and then spray venom into the wound. The fire ant bites only to grip on, and then injects a venom through a sting in the abdomen. The venom is an alkaline compound containing solenopsin. The effect is painful for humans, and often fatal for other insects.
Interestingly, this particular alkaline has been used in homeopathic therapies, and has recently had scientific light shed on it to reveal it’s qualities as an antibacterial, insecticidal, anti fungal, and anti-HIV properties. The fire ant might be paying us back for it’s stings. That’s better than the deals on nomorerack.
Another claim to fame made by a certain fire ant, the Solenopsis invicta has another claim to fame; it is said to cause an estimated $5 billion in damages per year to North America, in medical treatment, damage, and control. These is an invasive fire ant species which is said to arrived by boat in the early 1900’s.
But there is much more to the fire ant than it’s distinguishable sting, and it’s ability to run up a whopping bill with the FDA. Like other ants, the societies they form are vast and complex, hierarchical and efficient, and there is much scientific interest around them.
To nest, the fire ant produces large mounds, sometimes in open areas. They feed off plants, seeds, other insects like crickets, and sometimes small animals, which they are capable of attacking, and sometimes killing and eating.
Colonies are founded by queen ants, who can give birth to an expansive population in a matter of months. Their primary focus is breeding, and they can lay up to 3,500 eggs in a single day. They live for around 6 or 7 years; much longer than any ant workers or males. That makes for a lot of eggs, perhaps as many as 9 million in a queen’s lifetime.
The workers, and soldiers, in the colony are born sterile, to the reproductive process of the queen. The workers tend to take care of the everyday tasks around the nest, including foraging for food, taking care of the larvae, and cleaning the nest. The soldiers are bigger, stronger ants, which have powerful mandibles.
There are male ants in the fire ant societies, and their role is mate with the queen. Before anyone starts thinking this is the easy job, the male seems only to live for reason of this mating; he dies shortly afterwards.
The males, and the queen, interestingly, have been shown to be born to a “cloning” process. Where workers are born to normal reproductive processes on the part of the queen, daughter queens are always clonally produced. This increases the queens relatedness to reproductive daughters but potentially damages the males reproductive success. As a result of this the male has developed a response by reproducing clonally too! They achieve this, it is suggested, by eliminating the maternal half of the genome in diploid eggs.
Perhaps even more bizarrely, some colonies of fire ants have only one queen, known as a monogyne queen, and some societies involve multiple queens, aptly named a polygyne colony. The two colonies have also been shown to display differences in behaviour, with the monogyne acting more aggressively, and territorially, killing any queen that tries to attach itself to the colony. The polygene colonies, on the other hand, accepts strangers, including new queens to help colonize.
Whether you love them, or hate them, the fire ant is a fascinating creature. With social and political structures that seem as complex as our own, stinging venoms that could become potential cures, and strange genetic behaviours that are leaving scientists baffled, the fire ant earns it’s right to be king of the insects.