Social Insects, Especially Ants

(insects that live in colonies which, in some ways, resemble human cities are ants, bees, wasps, hornets, and termites)

Some biologists consider ants to be closer to humans in their social organizations than any of the other Arthropods or joint-legged creatures that exist

Most insects do not exist in social colonies in that the females lay their eggs on or near sources of food and then go away.

Grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, and most of the other insects have no further interest in their eggs or the young which hatch from them.

Apparently, the first step up the insect-social ladder is found among those insects in which the female constructs a special nest for her future offspring.

  1. The female does not stay with them to give them any sort of care but she does build some kind of nest stocked with proper food.
  2. A good example of this is found among the solitary wasps such as the mud-daubers and hunting wasps.
  3. As for the mud-daubers, the female builds a clay cell, stocks it with spiders which she has paralyzed with her sting and, after laying an egg, she seals the cell with more clay.
  4. Then she may leave the area or begin the construction of another cell.
  5. Meanwhile, the egg in the cell hatches and he larval wasp begins feeding on the paralyzed spiders.
  6. The the larva changes into the pupal or resting stage and when it is fully developed, the winged wasp gnaws its way out of the cell.
  7. During the time the wasp is developing and chews its way out of the cell, the female wasp has left and never stays around to see her offspring leave its enclosure.
  8. The hunting wasps that excavate nests in the ground and stock them with paralyzed grasshoppers, cicadas, horseflies, or other food sources, have similar life histories as those of the mud-daubers.

The next step up the social ladder of insects are those in which the female remains with her eggs until they hatch and then cares for her young until they are able to take care of themselves

This situation occurs among a number of insects, including some stinkbugs, a few beetles, and several cockroaches.

  1. There is a stinkbug or Pentatomid (Mecistorhinus tripterus) found on cacao plants in Trinidad that lays her cylindrical or can-shaped eggs in a cluster and guards them until they hatch.
  2. After laying her can-shaped eggs, the female guards them until they hatch and then remains with the young for several days which protects them from enemies.
  3. This sub-social habit is also found in most earwigs from the order Dermaptera.
  4. In autumn, a mated pair of earwigs excavates a small cavity in the ground and remains there until spring.
  5. At this time the female drives her mate out of the nest and then lays her eggs.
  6. When the young hatch, they are protected by the female during at least a portion of their immature lives.
  7. When the young hatch, they are protected by the female during at least a portion of their immature lives.
  8. Later, the young are on their own, and there is no continuation of family life.

At the top of the insect social ladder are the true social insects of the six-footed clan

  1. In this group are the honeybees, the hornets, ants, and termites.
  2. Among them are found large colonies or families.
  3. They are referred to as "families" because all of the individuals are usually related, having hatched from eggs laid by one queen mother.
  4. With the termites, there may be other egg-laying individuals besides the queen; still, they are usually all related to each other.

The best examples of the true social insects are found among the ant tribes

  1. Ant colonies or "cities" have much more in common with human metropolitan areas than most people realize.
  2. A typical ant nest or colony usually consists of a mixed population of ants categorized and prepared to carry out various responsibilities in connection with the colonial or "city" life.
  3. The queen ant does not "govern" her subjects in the sense that human city officials do.
  4. She makes no rules or laws and issues no orders, yet her influence is felt throughout the colony as a result of certain chemical substances that are secreted by the queen and passed out to the workers.
  5. Regarding honeybees, the term is "queen substance" and, while the queen is alive, it is circulated continuously among all the bee workers from mouth to mouth.
  6. This is a chemical message that controls and regulates many of the activities within the bee hive.
  7. The trading, or passing around, of glandular secretions is common among social insects and the term for such procedures is trophallaxis or the mutual exchange of food between adults and larvae of certain social insects.
  8. It explains the many activities of these insects that otherwise appear at first to be intelligent or instinctive activities.
  9. If a queen honeybee is killed, or dies, the entire colony down to the last worker is very quickly aware of the fact.
  10. This is because the supply of "queen substance" secreted continually by her and passed along from worker to worker is cut off and so the bees become disturbed and don't work.
  11. The appear to "know" that without their queen the hive is doomed because she alone, of all the bees in the colony, is capable of laying worker eggs.
  12. Not only does this "queen substance" control the activities of the worker bees, but it influences the development of their glands as well.

In a general way, the social life of ants is similar to that of bees and hornets because these insects are closely related to each other

  1. An ant colony, like a bee hive, is a female society or matriarchy; that is, literally, "governed or ruled by mothers".
  2. It consists of a queen, many workers and, perhaps, some soldiers; all of which are females.
  3. Of course, there are male ants, but these are fewer in number and not always present in the nest or colony.
  4. Male ants correspond to the drones in a colony of honeybees which are male bees that have no sting, do not gather pollen, and exist only to mate with the queen bee.
  5. During most of the year the inhabitants of an ant colony consist only of wingless workers or "imperfect females", but at certain seasons, usually in the spring, winged male and female ants are produced which swarm out of the old colonies.
  6. These females, or queens, mate either with males from the same or from nearby colonies, then the males die.
  7. Meanwhile, the mated or fertilized queens fly away looking for places to establish their nests which, depending on the types of ants, may be in the ground, rotten wood, or other locations.
  8. The queen then gets rid of her wings, either by pulling them off with her legs or jaws, or by rubbing them against something so they break off.
  9. During her future existence, the queen will have no use for wings; so, she gets rid of them.
  10. After excavating a small cell, she lays a few eggs and, when these hatch, the larvae are fed on material secreted by her.
  11. The queen has a large thorax, or midsection, filled with flight muscles which are no longer needed since her wings have been severed and these useless muscles are slowly dissolved and converted into nutrients that sustain both the queen and the young during this period of isolation.
  12. After a period of development, the larval ants reach maturity and go into the pupal or resting stage and, eventually, the adult worker ants emerge.

—Compiled from information provided in
"The Social Insects" by Ross F. Hutchins located in The Ant Realm;
Dodd, Mead & Company; New York; 1967; pages 1-14.

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