Ants are small, but their numbers are huge. There are 1.5 million ants for every person on earth. That’s 10 quadrillion, 500 trillion ants! The places ants choose tend to be small or hidden — underground, under bark, or inside plants. The countless little spaces between big places is the most plentiful kind of real estate on Earth. Because there are so many ants in so many places all over the world, ants are…
The study of ants is called myrmecology (MER-muh-KAHL-uh-jee). Myrmecologists have identified 15,000 species of ants worldwide.
Missouri has 150 different kinds of ants, including the two species you’re most likely to see in your kitchen or bathroom: the odorous house ant and the acrobat ant. You usually see the odorous house ant in your kitchen looking for sweets. It has a small abdomen, and it releases a fruity coconut smell when smashed.
The acrobat ant has a heart-shaped abdomen and thrives near moisture. You’re most likely to see it near the tub or bathroom window.
If you’re antsy to start your own fascinating ant farm, ask a grown-up to help you find a well-designed ant farm container online. Once your container arrives, you can collect your own worker ants. They will live and work in your farm for several months. Be careful catching and handling wild ants, though. Some kinds can both bite and sting. If you want your farm to last, you’ll need to order a queen and her workers online. Learn more about ants at mdc.mo.gov/field-guide.
What Good are Ants Anyway?
Most Missouri ants aren’t pests. They’re important members of our forests, prairies, and yards. In fact, we couldn’t do without the many free services they provide for nature and people.
They’re Super Recyclers
They help decompose the world’s dead plants, animals, and food waste. As garbage handlers, ants help keep our environment clean and healthy.
They Work the Soil and Help Plants Grow
By digging tunnels and chambers, ants mix oxygen into the soil, which helps the roots of trees and other plants “breathe.” This mixing also helps loosen the soil so seeds can enter it and grow. Some seed-eating ants help spread certain kinds of plants.
They’re Both Predator and Prey
Ants eat other kinds of insects, helping control garden and home pests. They also serve as dinner for many kinds of animals, from bears to woodpeckers.
Ants are insects, which means they have six legs and three main body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen. This drawing gives you a general idea of how ants look, but it doesn’t represent the many specific differences between different kinds of ants.
- Head - jointed and flexible. Antennae are equipped with sensors for touch and smell.
- Thorax - Little spurs and claws on the legs and feet allow ants to grip objects and cling to smooth surfaces.
- Abdomen - Flexible, so worker ants can aim stingers or spray repellent from their rear ends.
- Compound Eyes - Can sense light and possibly color in some species.
- Mouth Parts - Mandibles or jaws are used as tools, food cutters, and weapons instead of for actual eating.
- Ears and Nose? Nope, ants don’t have ears or noses, but their bodies detect vibrations and their antennae detect scents. They have no lungs and breathe through tiny holes covering their bodies.
Did you know? An ant can lift and carry 20 times her body weight. If you could lift 20 times your body weight, what could you lift?
Stupid Ant Trick
Next time you see a line of ants, wipe your finger through it and watch the followers break up in confusion. It’ll take them a while, but they’ll eventually pick up the trail’s signal and get back on track.
Freaky Ant Facts
- Ants live on every continent except (wait for it) ANTarctica. That’s because it’s just too cold for them to survive there.
- Some kinds of predatory army ants march on leaderless, never-ending quests to find food, defeat enemies, and claim territory.
- Trap-jaw ants hold the record for the fastest movement in the animal kingdom. Their spring-loaded jaws snap shut on prey at a rate of 78 to 145 miles per hour.
- Some ants are herders. They guard plant-sucking bugs like aphids, which produce a sweet goo called honeydew. Ants fend off challengers so they can harvest all that yummy goo for themselves.
- Zombie ants are real. A parasitic fungus targets a carpenter ant and releases a brain-controlling chemical, making the victim clamp down on a twig. Then the fungus kills the ant and shoots a spore spewing stalk out of its head to infect more ants.