Ants are one of the most diverse and dominant insects on Earth. Some ant species can be found in almost every terrestrial habitat, from rainforest to desert and everything in between.
Ants have a fascinating life cycle consisting of four stages: eggs, larvae, pupa, and adult ant.
This article will explore these four stages as well as the ant colony’s development over time!
The Ant Life Cycle
The life cycle of ants is broken up into four stages:
Each stage has unique characteristics that make them stand out from one another.
For example, ant eggs are much smaller than an ant’s size in adulthood. They hatch after a period of time and become ant larvae.
Here you can read about the different stages an ant goes through before it becomes a fully grown ant.
Ant Egg Stage
An ant egg stage is very brief. It stays in this egg form for a few days (7 to 14), however, it lays the foundation for all stages of ant development. Ant eggs are protected by female worker ants that care for them after they hatch. This means cleaning them and moving them around if they need to.
The ant larvae stage lasts for about 6 to 12 days and is the shortest ant life cycle stage. The ant larvae will eat food specifically given to them by ant workers in order to grow and develop into ant pupae.
These larvae are small and white, just like the ant eggs. In the larvae stage, ants grow pretty fast, which is why they turn into pupae so fast.
The ant pupae stage is the second-longest of all ant life stages, lasting anywhere from 9 to 30 days.
When the ant larva reaches a certain size it metamorphoses into a pupa. This means it will spin a cocoon around itself, to help it further develop into a fully grown ant. Not all species use cocoons to protect themselves though.
Pupas are white, waxy on the outside, and gradually become darker. At this stage, an ant begins to develop their antennae and legs, which are folded against its body.
Once mature, ant colonies will have a set of distinct castes: queens and males (called drones or alates) that are winged ants that serve as future queens, and workers.
Males do not participate in the colony’s labor or reproduction; rather they just live long enough to mate with new young queens before dying immediately after mating occurs.
Queens lay all of the eggs and are therefore the most important of them all, which is why the workers live to serve and protect her.
Types of Ant Adults
There are many ant species and each ant type has a different life cycle. While ants have four stages in their lifecycle, there are several types of adult ants.
The queen ants are the most important of them all. They’re in charge of reproduction (laying eggs). An ant queen can lay thousands of eggs every day.
A queen ant is born with wings. She’ll use these to find a mate during nuptial flight, whereafter she’ll shred them. Queens are also responsible for starting new colonies. They do this all by themselves while waiting for the nanitics to hatch (the first batch of worker ants).
Drones (Reproductive Males)
Drones (also called alates) are ant males that mate with ant queens. The only job of the drone is to reproduce and then they die immediately after mating occurs.
Males are born from ant eggs, just like any other ant, yet these eggs are unfertilized . The queen can control this, to make sure she won’t produce too many males.
There aren’t very many drones in an ant colony and it’s estimated that there will be about one male for every female worker ant.
Worker ants are sterile females who have to work all day long. They have different tasks such as gathering food, scouting for dangers, building the nest, keeping everything clean, and caring for the younglings.
They have to do all of this to ensure the survival of the Queen, which also means survival of the colony.
Worker ants are females born from fertilized eggs . This is something the queen can control. She does this to make sure she produces enough worker ants to care for and grow the colony while making sure she doesn’t make too many male ants.
Workers can also be born as soldiers. These are also sterile female ants who protect ant colonies by fighting off other insects which pose a threat to ant larvae or food resources for their respective ant colonies.
Soldiers will be of larger size, typically also with larger-than-average mandibles, that will help them eliminate any prey or dangers.
The soldiers of an ant colony will attack anything that poses danger to their nest or queen, including humans if they feel threatened enough. These ants will bite and sting, which can cause a painful reaction in humans.
How Long Do Ants Live?
Ants have a very short life span. It depends on the species, but an average worker ant usually lives between 4 – 12 months. Some only live 1 month, while others can live for years (especially queen ants, which can live as long as 15 years).
This of course all depends on multiple variables like:
- The environmental conditions around the nest
- Whether there are any nearby predators
- Access to food and water
- And other factors
Read more: How long do ants live?
Ants work together as a team, mostly for food gathering purposes. If they work together, they have a better chance of survival. Lonely ants rarely live long lives, whereas a healthy colony can live for decades.
The Stages of an Ant Colony
An ant colony also has different stages of its life cycle. An ant colony is started by the queen laying the first eggs but can end up with a population of millions of ants.
An ant colony generally goes through 3 stages:
- The founding stage (the queen lays the first eggs and the nanitics are born)
- The ergonomic stage (the workers start building a proper nest for the colony)
- The reproductive stage (the queen can start reproducing a lot of ants)
In this section, you can read all about the ant colony, how it’s founded and how it grows into a family of millions of ants.
Founding Stage: Starting a Colony
The ant life cycle starts with the founding stage. This is when both male and female ants leave their original colony to form a new one. The queen ant will search for an ideal location to start her new ant colony, which can be in your home or garden.
Once she has found it, the queen ant will begin building up her little ant colony. She will start by laying about a dozen ant eggs, which are very tiny and white in color. The ant eggs can be as small as the head of a pin.
As the newly laid eggs go through the different stages (covered earlier in this article: egg, larva, pupa, or adult), the queen has to take care of them.
This is almost the only time in the queen’s life when she has to do the work herself.
When the first batch of eggs turns into adults, the first workers are born. The ants in this first batch of newborns are called nanitics . These worker ants are smaller than the ones to come since they haven’t gotten many nutrients.
These nanitics decide the fate of the colony. If they fail to find food and generally help the queen establish a colony, they will die along with the queen. This is due to the fact that the queen has used up all of the energy and nutrients in her body, in order to feed the first batch of eggs.
If the nanitics fail, they will simply die from starvation.
Ergonomic Stage: Expanding the Colony
Ants are social insects that live in colonies, but if there’s no colony or no nest, they’ll eventually die out.
This is what the ergonomic stage is all about: expanding the colony and the nest.
As you know, the workers do pretty much everything in an ant colony, except lay the eggs. At this point, the queen will have had a chance to lay some more eggs, in order to create more workers.
When the population of worker ants gets bigger, they’ll be able to do more and more, including building the nest to house the ever-growing population.
You can think of the ergonomic stage as growth-focus and preparation for future growth . In order to house more ants, gather more food, and produce more ant eggs, they need a solid structure to live in.
The ants will only do tasks that are associated with growth.
This stage includes changes and activities such as:
- Brood care
- Expansion of the nest
- The population of workers grows
- The average size of the workers’ increases
- New physical castes are sometimes added
Reproductive Stage: Laying Eggs and Producing New Queens
Now that the ants have prepared the nest for expansion, have grown a bit in size (population-wise), and the workers have increased, it’s time to seek outwards. When the colony is big enough (which can take 1 to 5 years to achieve), it’ll enter the reproductive stage.
In the reproductive stage, the queen will start producing virgin queens and males. These will leave the nest, flying off in all directions to mate with queens or males from new colonies (this is done during nuptial flight), in order to start their own cycle.
This will ensure that the ant species live on – not just within their own colony, but all over a country or even continent.
Sometimes, an ant colony can end up with multiple queens. This will form a supercolony, where multiple queens work together to expand the colony population rapidly.
After an ant colony has entered the reproductive stage, they will continue their work, and generally bounce between the ergonomic stage and reproductive stage. This way, they can continuously grow the colony and make sure new queens and males can start new colonies.