Part I: 3 reasons why I study ants

By Dr Yek Sze Huei

Photo credit: Nick BosIn ants, females rule!

Think back to Hollywood movies where ants make an appearance: ‘A Bug’s Life’‘The Ant Bully’‘Antz’, and the most recent Marvel superhero ‘Ant-Man’, they all got the sex wrong. In ants society, it’s all females!

The worker ants that you see all the time – female! You will hardly see any queen because she is well-protected and often hidden, and if there’s any sign of danger, she’s the one that gets spirited away immediately, while the soldiers (also females) comes out and sacrifice themselves to defend the nests.

Does this mean that there are no males at all in ant society? No, there are males. Males are only produced when the nests are mature enough and ready for expansion. Males are produced in large numbers when the time is right. Males have wings and fly, mate with as many as possible reproductive females (these have wings too), then die (either out of exhaustion or picked off by birds and other ant-eating predators).

The reproductive female mate with multiple males in one night, and then, shed her wings, eat her wing muscles, and start digging for a new nest. She stays in the new nests, lays eggs that turn into workers, and she officially becomes a Queen. From then on until the day she dies, she spends her days laying eggs that will turn mostly into workers, sometimes soldiers, males and reproductive females.

Sex for one night and sperms for a lifetime

Monty Python The Meaning of Life’s song “Every Sperm is Sacred” literally applies in ants. The Queen uses her stored sperm wisely and sparingly, adjusting the need of her colony.

Imagine having all the sex of your life in one night and keeping the sperms viable for the next 10+ years (no one knows how long an ant queen lives, the longest record in the laboratory setting is 21 years!). What’s more, the Queen can choose whether she wants a boy (unfertilised egg, meaning no sperm is involved) or a girl (she fertilised her egg with a sperm).

Medical care in ants is as advanced as in human society

By now you must imagine an ants’ nest as one big happy family. You are right, everyone is related to everyone (like a lot). All workers are daughters of the same mother (the Queen), but they can have a different father (remember, the queen chooses which sperm she wants to use). All the males have the same genetic makeup (100% mother) and are 100% related to their sisters on the mum’s side.

Common sense tells us that if the whole society is so inbred and living so close to each other, you risk a pathogen or disease coming through and killing everyone. But surprisingly, ants are notoriously healthy and hard to kill.

So, how do ants manage to stay so healthy, while we humans struggle?

First of all, ants are Germaphobes (OCD about cleanliness), they groom themselves obsessively, and they groom with a cocktail of antibiotics that is either produced by themselves or sourced from the surrounding environment. They are famous for seeking out antibiotics and use them to their advantage (my research focus on this aspect of ants’ biology).

Second, ants perfected the arts of vaccination. They licked each other all the time, as a form of communication. Imagine an ant going out, searching for food, and pick up a bug.  When she comes back, she will be licked by her sisters, all contributing to spreading a low-dose of the bug (like vaccines) to the rest of the colony members. Very soon, the whole colony would have experienced the bug and develop immunity against this new bug. Voila, no one gets sick anymore!

Thirdly, it helps A LOT that ants are selfless. When an ant become terminally sick, she goes out of the nest to die. If she is too sick and could not move on her own, her sisters will haul her dying ass to the garbage pile. The location of the garbage pile is always at a location that will not further contaminate the main nest. Complete separation (like quarantine) of the sick and healthy.

They are more ways ants biology fascinate me, but I hope this will give you a sense of why learning about how they live is so much more valuable than learning on how to kill them. And by the way, if you really don’t want ants in your house, stop leaving food on the kitchen counter. It’s really as simple as that!