Mail from the Revenge

Dear Antboy-

I am curious about the lifespan of ants – in particular your gliding ants. Can you describe what life is like for worker ants and how long they are subject to hard labor? I would also like to know about the queen. How many times does she have children before she throws in the towel? Does she ever get a vacation from child rearing?

Thank you for all the great information! I never knew ants were so interesting.

-Yar’s Revenge

Dear Ms Revenge –

I’m actually not sure about the exact lifespans for the Cephalotes ants, but I’ll take a look into it when I get back from Panama and see what I can dig up when I have some library access. In general, though, the workers of any ant colony are short-lived compared to the queen. In fire ants, for example, the workers will live for between 10 and 70 weeks, whereas the queen will live for 6 or 7 years (according to Table 3-3 in The Ants, by Hölldobler and Wilson). Carpenter ant workers can live for several years, and queens can live up to fifteen years or so. The queens of some species are estimated to live for up to thirty years. I would guess, based on the fact that the workers are large and expensive to manufacture for the colony, that Cephalotes atratus workers would end up being on the more long-lived end of the spectrum, but I don’t have a specific number just yet.

As for what the workers do, in the beginning of their lives as adults, their first job is tending to the larvae of the nest. This mostly means feeding them with the food that the foraging workers are bringing in. After they finish their nursing period, their job becomes bringing home the food. Every day, they will be out and scavenging for solid food, like bird poop and dead things, as well as looking for liquid food like nectar. Often I’ll find them camped out on trees that have extrafloral nectaries, like Inga trees. These trees have additional nectar producing structures (aside from flowers, which is where you typically find nectar) that are usually found along the stem of a leaf. It’s thought that the trees have these specifically to attract insects, with the point being that insects that come to feed on the nectar will drive away more damaging herbivorous insects that are more interest in chewing up the tree’s leaves, which the tree obviously would prefer not to have happen.

That said, it’s not all hard labor all the time. A lot of the time, when ants aren’t out foraging, they’ll just be hanging out in the nest apparently not really doing much of anything.

As for the queens, your question is exceptionally well timed as some friends on the island recently brought me a Cephalotes atratus queen that they found out in the forest.


There are more photos on the other side of the link, if you’d like to get some other views of her. She’s about 20mm long, so about a third again as large as the workers. I don’t have any reason to expect that she should be able to glide like the workers, partly because she’s so much heavier than the workers while having relatively short legs for her size, and partly because for the most of the motile part of her lifespan she has wings that she uses to get around on. But if I have time I’m going to try and chuck her in the wind tunnel just to see what she does.

As you can see, she’s already dropped her wings, but if you look at the full size version on the Flickr page you can see the stumps from where they used to be attached. The fact that she’s dropped her wings means that she has already mated and is ready to try and found her new colony. The queen will never re-mate – she mates only once, and stores all of the sperm from that mating in a gland called the spermatheca. She will then use these sperm for the rest of her life to produce all of the workers for her colony, as well as all the reproductive winged males and females when the colony goes into a reproductive cycle. So, depending on the species, a single queen will lay thousands if not millions of eggs in her life. And as far as I’m aware, no, she never really gets much of a break.


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