Ants. You know ‘em. You probably don’t like ‘em. But they are seriously cool. As the most numerous insects in the world, ants have an incredible impact on our environments. You might not want them crawling around your kitchen, but you do want them crawling around out in the world. Here are just a few interesting ant facts, proving once and for all why ants are way cooler than you think.
1. Ants are everywhere.
There are over 10,000 known ant species. They’re found on every continent except Antarctica (assuming that the scientists in Antarctica don’t have any secret ant farms, which we’re not totally ruling out). In some places, ants make up half of the insect population.
We can’t know the exact number of ants on Earth, but scientists estimate the number somewhere between 10,000 trillion to a quadrillion (which is a million trillion). One common myth holds that ants, in total, weigh more than the total weight of all humans on the planet. As the BBC reports—and we’re using “report” loosely, here—10 trillion ants would weigh about 40 billion kilograms (88 billion pounds), while all of the planet’s 7.2 billion humans weigh about 332 billion kilograms (732 billion pounds). We can breathe a sigh of relief; we outweigh those ants, so if they rise up, we’ll have the advantage. For now.
2. Ants can live for a really long time.
Lifespans vary quite a bit from one ant species to the next. One fact seems to hold true across various ant populations for obvious reasons: Queens always live the longest.
The black garden ant queens currently hold the record, as they typically live between 20 to 30 years. One ant living in captivity stayed alive over 28 years. That means that ant could drive a car and get great rates on vehicle rentals!
Queens of other species sometimes only live one to three years, but that’s still much longer than the few weeks of life that most male ants get (sorry, guys). If you’re going to be an ant, you want to be the queen.
3. Ants can reproduce really, really quickly.
Of course, if you’re going to be a queen ant, you’re going to have to do a lot of work. As with lifespan, birth rates vary by species, but some queens really get busy. Fire ants are one of the most prolific species. We reached out to insect experts to get more information, since we have nothing better to do.
“A single [fire ant] colony can produce 4,500 queens a year, each of which can go on to lay 5,000 eggs a day for the next 5-7 years,” says bug geek and exterminator Wesley Wheeler. “Once mated, queens can fly far and wide, hitch a ride on flowing water, and even work together to establish new colonies (a practice called pleometrosis).”
Other species are similarly prolific. In only a few days, an army ant queen can lay up to 300,000 eggs, whereas a pharaoh ant queen only lays around 35 eggs per day. If you’ve got an ant infestation, you can smash all of the bugs you want, but you won’t make much headway unless you’re able to target the queen.
4. Ants can make you lose your hair.
Ever need a cheap cut? Visit the barber ant. They offer only one style, unfortunately, and it’s not exactly stylish. Victims lose random patches of hair.
“There is actually a condition called ant-induced alopecia,” says dermatologist Erum Ilyas.
Luckily, these ants don’t attack the follicle itself. The damage isn’t permanent, and ant-induced alopecia sufferers typically recover. The bad news is that the condition is thought to be caused by ants in the Pheidole genus, which isi the second-largest genus of ants in the world. You’ve probably got some Pheidole ants near you right now, though most ant-induced alopecia cases have been found in the Middle East.
“The theory is these ants cause mechanical or chemical breakage of the hair,” says Ilyas. “There is no treatment needed as the hair follicles will continue to grow hair.”
5. Ants don’t have lungs.
Like all insects, ants don’t use lungs to breathe. Instead, they use tiny holes in the sides of their bodies called tracheae.
“[Ants] have micro pores all over their body that absorbs oxygen. When they exhale, carbon dioxide leaves their body through the same holes. This evolutionary benefit helps more oxygen get into their bloodstream, which helps them with their amazing feats of strength,” says etymologist Jeff Neal from the Critter Depot.
Want to suffocate an ant? Okay, that’s a weird goal, but you’ll need to completely cover the entire ant. At that point, you might as well squash it.
6. Ants are really strong.
Most of us learned this in grade school, but ants are strong, like, really strong. Pound for pound, they’re some of the strongest creatures on the planet, which is why they’re fantastic at carrying away your donut crumbs. Most ant species are able to lift around 10 times their body weight. However, the leafcutter ant can lift up to 50 times its own body weight. The human equivalent would be you lifting 9,000 pounds.
We couldn’t confirm whether or not ants have tiny gyms with little barbells, but we’re going to go ahead and assume that that’s the case.
7. Ants farm, and they’re remarkably good at it.
You’ve heard of ant farms, right? The cute little sand filled cases where you can watch ants go about their daily activities? Sure you have. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Some ants are legitimate farmers, capable of cultivating self-sufficient food systems.
Leafcutter ants—the real beef-cake species we just discussed—also tend to live in massive colonies of up to 8 million ants. Supporting a colony of this size takes a lot of work, and leafcutters have figured out how to grow fungus for food. These ants bring in fresh leaf matter, chew it up into a pulp, fertilize it, and then tend to the decomposition process. The fungus grows and breaks down the leaf matter, in turn providing a nutrient rich blobs for the ants to eat.
Other ants also farm—but these species basically raise their own cattle. Herder ants, farmer ants, and Melissotarsus ants all farm tiny little insects called aphids. Aphids produce a sugary secretion known as honeydew, and ants really like to eat honeydew.
These ants will provide shelter and protection of aphids and in turn will “milk” or actually tickle these bugs to get them to release the honeydew. Ants get a snack, aphids get room and board, and it’s a whole weird and wonderful biodiversity miracle.