Ant Life Cycle – Exploring the Different Stages
By: Rita Stadler
How long do ants live and what makes up the different stages of their life cycle? These are the kind of endless questions an inquisitive preschooler might ask after spotting some of these critters in the kitchen.
Being interrogated by a curious kid (or anybody else) while trying to deal with a black garden ant infestation is pretty darn stressful, so we’ve broken down the answers to all your burning questions, and we’ve even got a few tips to help get rid of them, too!
Life Cycle of an Ant
Of the at least 12,000 different species of ants in the world, just a few hundred are found in the United States. Less than half of those ant species are known to be pests to homeowners. All of that means there is a wide variety in ant life cycles depending on species and habitat. The following information provides a general summary of the types that homeowners are most likely to encounter.
An ant life cycle is made up of four stages and can take between 6-10 weeks to complete and reach adulthood:
Ants begin their lives as eggs. When an ant egg is fertilized it becomes a female. However, unfertilized eggs become male ants. Eggs are very small and oval-shaped. They are sticky, which makes it easier for them to be carried away if the nest is in danger.
Ant larvae look like tiny little worms, with no eyes or legs. Molting, or shedding their skin, multiple times as they grow larger, larvae are like eating machines. Larvae eat constantly while growing rapidly, but they rely on adult worker ants to bring them food. Once the larva is big enough, it will form a cocoon around itself and go through metamorphoses, becoming a pupa.
The cocoon stage of development for an ant is known as the pupal state. Inside the cocoon, they continue to develop and start to darken in color. After completing the pupal stage, a fully formed adult will emerge.
Ants have a hard exoskeleton, six legs, and a body that is segmented into three regions: the head, thorax, and abdomen. The head contains mouthparts that are used for eating and excavating, as well as two antennae which are sensory organs. Antennae are essential for their sense of smell and touch. Ants use their sense of smell to lead others to food sources, to recognize friends or enemies, and to establish territorial boundaries. Males and queens are the only ones that have wings, while workers are wingless. Their color depends on their species, but they are usually black, brown, or red.
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How Long Do Ants Live?
Ant colonies are divided into three castes, or groups: queens, males, and workers. Their lifespan depends on the group they belong to. Queen ants can live for years, even decades while workers can live anywhere from a few months to a couple years. This depends on their species and if they are male or female.
Queen ants are the biggest of all the castes, and live longer than the other castes. Pharaoh ant queens may live for 2-3 years, but carpenter ant queens have been known to live for up to 20 years! Some types of ants have only one queen per colony, but other types have multiple queens in the same colony.
Queens are the only ones that can have babies or lay eggs. You will probably never see a pregnant ant because a queen only has one job (making more ants) and is protected by the colony. She spends her entire life laying eggs. If you ever do encounter a queen, it is probably during the nuptial flight. When weather conditions are just right, usually in the hot and humid conditions following rain, the nuptial flight occurs. Unmated queens and mature males take flight to mate. Males die immediately after mating, while queens seek out a new nesting site to start their own colonies. Aside from this mating act, most don’t generally fly.
These ants vary in size depending on what their job is – some workers dig tunnels, others care for the eggs, some forage for food, and the largest ones defend the entire colony. Worker ant lifespans vary by species. Pharaoh ant workers may only live 9-10 weeks, but carpenter ant workers can live for years.
As you can see, these pests are a complex and fascinating group of organisms.
If you’re having a problem with infestations around your home, find out how to naturally get rid of ants with humane pest control options.