Friday, September 5, 2014

About Ants; and Collecting ants for Identification

Ants are essentially a family of insects descended from wasps, and sharing many characteristics with them. However, they have many ‘stand alone’ features that all ants, and only ants, share. 
All ants could be described as Liverpool football supporters – they Never Walk Alone. Whereas there are several solitary bees and wasps, their fellow-members of the insect order Hymenoptera, all ants are social and, if you find one, there are others from the same nest somewhere nearby.
All the worker ants you’ll ever see are females. Male ants have short, idyllic lives, where they are born, hang around the nest being pampered and fed, and then flying out to find young females (‘alates’) to mate with. And having mated, they die.
Their sisters are the workers, and they usually have a queen or several queens who do all the reproductive work, although there are species of ants where there are no queens and a worker or workers take on the reproductive role.

The eggs are small and white or sometimes pinkish. They hatch into blind, legless larvae that are completely helpless, and unless constantly fed and groomed by their sisters they die. As with most insects the larvae are a stage in the animals’ metamorphosis, and in due course they pupate. In some sub-families the pupae are naked; in others the larvae spin cocoons and pupate inside them. Finally, when metamorphosis is complete the adult ants emerge from the pupal state or, in the case of those in cocoons, their adult sisters have to tear open the cocoons to let them out. 
The queens are normally larger than the workers, with a distinctly larger thorax which holds the wing-muscles for their flying stage. The queens of the Red Driver ant, however, look quite different and are illustrated on that page.

Ants reproduce their colonies in two main ways:
1. By nuptial flights. The winged female and male reproductives fly out of the parent nests and, on meeting one of the opposite sex from a different colony, they mate. The male dies; the female (now a queen ant) drops her wings and finds a sheltered place for the new colony. She lays a few eggs and when these hatch she raises them to become the first workers of the new colony. She does not eat during this time, living off her fatty reserves supplied from her now-redundant wing muscles. Nests established in this way are highly nationalistic and usually hostile to all other ants, including their own species.
The whole nuptial flight process is extremely dicey and the chances of failure are extremely high.
2. By budding. There is more than one reproductive queen in the nest. When a good food source is discovered, some of the extra queens migrate out with the workers and start a new branch of the colony at the food supply. The colony remains interlinked and its members are accepted by all branches. The colonies can grow into enormous super-colonies spread out over many miles, and with countless trillions of individuals.

Ant Anatomy

Every scientific discipline loves its jargon, and entomology is no different. We’ve tried to keep the language simple in this website but there are a few terms you need to know. Ants’ bodies are substantively different from mammals and they have body parts that don’t have convenient common names. The drawing should make most of this clear. There are other parts with names but these are the most important.

Collecting ants for identification

We strongly advise users to sign up to iSpot, a great way to get your ants identified, or to help others ID their photos. You can sign up here

Although we have tried to convey the colour, shape and something of their habits in our illustrations of the various ant species below, if you’re serious about learning how to identify them there is no substitute for collection and examination. Ants are usually very, very small animals, however, and in order to examine them you’re going to need a good hand lens or, even better, a mini-microscope to be able to see their full range if identifying features.

Hand-held mini-microscopes of 60x magnification are very useful. The microscopes have powerful LED lights and use pill-batteries. 
The microscopes are unfortunately no longer available from me, but you might find them in a gadget shop.
There are two other essential items you will need. One is the smallest, softest-haired paint brush you can find. A water-colour brush with white hairs is best. The other is a supply of small Ziploc® bags. When you go out collecting you might want to unzip your bags before you start, as you often have to move fast to catch your ant and the bags sometimes resist opening at the wrong moment. 

Use the soft brush, not your fingers, to flick the ant(s) into the bag, and quickly zip it up (ants are small, fragile creatures and your enormous fingers – compared to an ant – will surely damage them).
Bothroponera pumicosa in the bag! Once trapped in the plastic you can study the animal at your leisure with your mini-microscope
When the ants are in the bag it’s easy to study them with the mini-microscope, often most conveniently by holding the bag against a white notebook page and holding it up to your eye. The sides of the bag pin the ant down without squashing it. If your ants are hot they will move very fast; it’s often best to take them home and put the bags into the fridge for an hour or so. This won’t kill them but it will slow them down. You can use the sections below to try to identify your ants, or you can try the iSpot key to Western Cape Ants. Finally, if all else fails the ants in the bag can also be easily posted away for identification, and you are welcome to send them to P Slingsby at P.O.Box 303, Muizenberg 7945. I’m always looking for ants to draw and yours will be most welcome, even if ‘dead on arrival’. In fact it’s best to kill the ants before sending them; the most humane method is to put them, bag and all, in your freezer for a few minutes.


  1. Does knowing an ants identification help in the process of their extermination? We have a colony of fire ants in a forest where I live that attacked my dogs and I feel revenge is greatly needed. If knowing the type of ant does help, what do you recommend would be the best way to go about getting rid of the pesky colony?

  2. You can't get rid of ants, so forget it. Knowing the type of ant makes no difference. There are about 24000 species wordwide and more ants per hectare everywhere than you could count ...


Please feel free to add any comments, observation etc that might help make this site more useful to more people.