Planet of the Ants

Ants may be small, but they threaten humanity itself in their unbelievably large-scale war. Lila Gazette gets their hands dirty to explain this crisis.

By Eden Perkins – 8th grade.

Wars aren’t just for humans. In the animal kingdom, ants are waging war against each other. And with the transportation (boats, planes…) that humans have created, it isn’t that hard for those ants to get around. This “World War of the Ants” also costs us in agriculture. The needs of moving ant armies adds up. They will reap fields of life like the locusts. The economic damage is also big. “…from 1930 to 2021, invasive species caused an estimated $51 billion dollars in economic losses,” says National Geographic.

This war has been going on for millions of years, and probably won’t end soon. The behavior of an ant is dictated by chemicals. When a scout goes out to find food, it leaves a chemical trail. When it finds food, it sends out a chemical cloud, almost like an invisible flare. Drones (male ants) are sent out sometimes to mate with queens to found a new colony. This quickly expands, and different species fight for territory.

To myrmecologist (someone who studies ants) Natasha Palesa Mothapo, the invading ants reminded her of colonization. “I was totally mesmerized first of all by how intelligent the invasive ants were, and they reminded me a lot of black people and colonization: The Argentine ants displace other ants, like humans colonize and displace other people,” she says in an interview with Myrmecologist News Blog. Dr. Mothapo also explains how the Argentine ants exploit the natural resources in this South African colony structure: “I realized that the native ants are not quite good at utilizing those resources (sugar, protein, etc.) while Argentine ants, when they find an abundant resource, they overexploit it, and they monopolize it, which are some of the strategies that the indigenous ants are not using.” This almost feels like a reflection of the colonization of Africa.

Billions of nests and trillions of workers

Right now, the species with the most territory is the argentine ant. Even though it may only be a humble 3 mm in size, the sheer number of these little warriors gives them the advantage. They currently have the biggest Supercolony (a connection of ant colonies that can stretch across countries) in the world, being at least 6000 square kilometers, with billions of nests and trillions of workers. They have control of around half of the U.S., around a third of South America, most of Europe, the south of Africa, and some of Australia. 

Natasha Palesa Mothapo. Credit: Myrmecologist News Blog

Even though they may face larger and more battle-ready ants such as the army ant and the fire ant (including the fire-argentine hybrid that some argentine colonies evolved into), strength in numbers really proves to be a good strategy for the argentine ants. Fire ants currently have control of California and pose a very big threat to agriculture. Everywhere in the world, this war jeopardizes human survival. 

Besides the argentine ant, the most dangerous ant seems to be the fire ant. It has the ability to give painful and deadly stings and can damage agriculture easily and efficiently. A big problem for humans is that ants are small and can easily catch ships or flights around the world. Because of their size, they can also be hard to find before it’s too late. Another problem is that each colony (whether it be fire ants or argentine ants) usually has multiple queens (the ‘leader’ who lays eggs and sends out drones, or male ants with wings, to found other colonies), making it hard to exterminate them. If we try to use chemical weapons, we may hurt ourselves as well, although that seems to be our only option. We can’t use natural predators, because we’d need so many of them. By the time the ants are exterminated, we’d have an invasion of that species. 

The great World War of the Ants

Fire ants don’t have as many as the argentine ants, but as they’ve already conquered the state of California. The rest of the U.S., and maybe even the world, may soon be in their mandibles. If only we could know how the great World War of the Ants will finish.

Credit: University of Florida.

The U.S. is also not the only country to be facing this. The Argentine ants already control most of South America, and they have moved to take a lot of Central and Latin America. They control the southern tip of Africa, Western Europe, Japan, Oman, The United Arab Emirates, all of New Zealand, the southern coast of Australia, and the U.K.

And that’s only Argentine Ants. Other ant species are in this war as well. Sadly, there are no known natural predators of Argentine ants, making it hard to find a species to destroy them with.

Humans are strong creatures, but are they strong enough to fight back against the invasion of these small soldiers? Only time will tell. And maybe some last-resort tactics.

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