Ants are all too familiar to us. Some of us look at ants in admiration while some others are scared; some of us may look at them with disgust; some may simply be indifferent. And for many, they are no more than just a nuisance. These are the general reactions. But, how many of us take a minute to wonder where these little creatures come from? Where do they live? Do they build homes like we do? Well, you may be surprised to know that most of them do build their own homes.
Grain after grain, grain by grain, the ants of a colony move soil particles to build their citadels. Sit next to an ant nest and you will sight these tiny, albeit important, inhabitants of planet earth.
Ants are social creatures. They live in colonies that consist of several individuals (mostly sterile, wingless females) spread over different castes: workers, soldiers and the like. Besides these, a colony also has fertile females and males – the queen and the drone. The queen lays eggs while the workers cart them away and store them in special chambers meant for the purpose. Their lifestyle often necessitates the need for a safe home – a nest. A nest that can give the ants a place to live in; a space that offers ample protection to the queen and her eggs; a secure place for growing larvae; and possibly, also a place to store the waste generated by the colony.
Many ants build very complex permanent nests, while those species that are constantly on the move don’t build a nest at all. The nests could simply be on the ground, around the base of a tree, on trees, under stones or fallen trees, and at times, even inside the ootheca of praying mantids and several such situations!
The most familiar ant nests are those on the ground, which consist of a pile of soil brought out and heaped around the entrance of the nest.
There could be more complex structures too, like what the Harvester Ants Pheidole sp. build. Their nest has two or more walls that keep rain water from entering the nest. At times, such walls can be raised from the ground, forming a chimney-like structure; these kinds of nests can be largely seen in areas with heavy rainfall.
One may even encounter a pile of small, dry leaves, a pile of twigs, feathers, or even a combination of these. It is thought that these ants (Diacamma sp.) use the dew that may settle on this pile to meet their water requirement; water harvesting started a long time ago, indeed!
One ant – the Jumping Ant – even decorates the entrance to its nest. It may use drying leaves or petals of flowers fallen on the ground, all of the same colour. It is thought that this enhances the visibility of the nest, thereby helping the ants easily navigate back to their nests.
Up in the trees, different species of ants build different structures. A nest could very simply be two leaves brought together and a bit of other plant matter used to create some space between the leaves.
Other nests could be a lot more complex, requiring several leaves to be brought together and held together by the silk produced by the larvae. These nests, typically built by Weaver Ants Oecophylla smaragdina, could be a very large structure.
On trees, one can also see the large, woody nests built by tree ants (Crematogaster sp. and Polyrachis sp.). These are built by the ants by first chewing plant matter and then using this as the raw material for the construction of the nest itself. These nests can be seen typically situated in the forks of branches.
The nests of tree ants like that of Crematogaster sp. also play home to woodpeckers. The Rufous Woodpecker is known to nest within the nest of this ant!
Ants are known for their industry. As you have seen, they ago about building some amazing structures that serve as their nests. Their nests can be either very simple or complex structures, and range from plain structures to decorated ones. These are but just a few examples.
Ants build their nests in a variety of other situations too. In my own house, I’ve had ants nest in shelves or even jackets in my cupboards, in sleeping bags, and in garden pots. All in all, ants are excellent architects. With keen observation, it may be possible to understand how ants respond to environmental conditions and make necessary amends to the structure that they are building. The next time you see a few ants striding along a wall or floor in your house, do follow the trail, and you might discover a whole new universe of hidden intelligent beings!