What would it be like to explore the vast lengths of their underground tunnels? How deep do they go? How many ants live down there? These questions had always fascinated me.
As I grew into an adult my fascination for ants remained. I am still amazed by this creature and I still ask some of the same questions that I wondered about as a boy. How deep do their tunnels go? How many ants live down there? Well, it turns out that some ant colonies can go really, really deep and get really, really big.
Why are ants so incredible?
Researchers pumped 10 tons of concrete into a leaf-cutter ant colony, and after the cement had hardened, they excavated. The results were astounding! The colony was far bigger and more intricate than anyone had imagined. The colony covered an area of 500 square feet and went down to a depth of 26 feet! If that does not sound that impressive to you. Remember we are dealing with an insect that is only 5 millimeters long. To put that in perspective, it would be the human equivelant of digging a tunnel over 9,000 feet deep (Over 3 times as tall as the world's tallest building) and covering an area of over 2 square miles. Now imagine stuffing that area with over a million people and you'll have an idea of what living in an ant colony is like. (To read more about the ant colony excavation, visit our Ant City page)
As an adult I have come to respect the many attributes of the remarkable ant. The work ethic of the ant can put even the most ambitious person to shame. All day long the ant labors in the hot desert, or a wet rain forest, or the cold tundra sniffing out his food and carrying back his load to the nest no matter how far the journey or how difficult the terrain. Never complaining and never taking a break, the ant works without supervision or direction until the job is done. Talk about a hard worker! You've probably heard that the load an ant carries around all day can be up to 50 times his own body weight! That would be the same as a human carrying around a medium sized American truck (7,000 - 10,000 lbs). What about the distance an ant travels? An ant walks all day long, from sun up til sun down, and while ants might not seem to move very fast when compared to us. It's a whole different story when you put it into perspective. If an ant moves at about 2 inches per second (see: how fast do ants run?). In the course of a 12 hour day, an ant will cover roughly 7,200 feet (approx. 1 1/3 miles!). That may not seem like much, but 7,200 feet is 365,760 times the ant's body length. For a human to equal that number, he would need to travel 415 miles in 12 hours! To do that you would need to run 34 mph all day long without stopping for a break or slowing down.
Another amazing example of the ants ability comes from a group of researchers at stanford university. While studying the ants, the researches found that the algorithm desert ants use to regulate food foraging is similar to the Traffic Control Protocol (TCP) used to regulate data traffic on the internet. Both ant networks and human networks use positive feedback: either from acknowledgements that trigger the transmission of the next data packet, or from food-laden returning foragers that trigger the exit of another outgoing forager (wired magazine, 2013).
For more about what makes an ant so incredible, see our 50 facts about ants page.
Why does the world need ants?
This is a time lapsed video demonstrating how beneficial ants are in the consumption and the decomposition of waste and other materials. There are hundreds of millions, if not billions of colonies around the world, and all of them aid in the consumption of waste and organic material.
The benefits of ants are immeasurable, literally. There are so many ants in the world (estimated as high as 10 quadrillion) that even a small task like breaking down a discarded piece of food is a huge deal because ants do it all over the world countless times each day! Ants work behind the scenes and out of sight, so that the benefits to us are not directly observed. Let's take a closer look at some of the beneficial things that these little creatures do.
As the ants begin to develop their colony and dig out their intricate network of tunnels, they naturally aerate the soil by moving and separating particles of soil, much like an earthworm does. As their tunnels go deeper and the ants begin to construct their various chambers, oxygen seeps down into the ground, spreading throughout the ant's tunnels and providing oxygen to the soil and to the plant's roots, which is very beneficial.
In addition to loosening up the soil and bringing oxygen to a plant's roots, ants also bring back large amounts of organic material to their nest. Which adds beneficial nutrients to the soil for plants. Depending on the size of the colony, 10,000 ants can bring in up to 20 lbs of food back to their nest per day! Ants will eat almost anything, and their large, diverse diet is beneficial because ants are a big contributor to decomposition. Removing waste products that would otherwise rot and may become infected with dangerous diseases. Sometimes ants are solely responsible for decomposition. A colony of ants can completely devour a piece of fruit in one day.
An ants big appetite does not just stop at non-living things. Many species of ants will attempt to eat or kill just about anything that gets in their way, or that they perceive as a threat. Most ants are not actually predators in the normal sense of the word. They do not seek out other animals or insects to eat them, but only do so if they happen upon them. Nevertheless ants consume countless numbers of other insects. World wide, ants are one of the most important predators on small invertebrates, including other insects (Center for Insect Science, 2007).
Ants also perform an essential function for some plant species by transporting their seeds to new locations for new growth. An ant can travel up to a 1000 feet from it's nest. While foraging for food, an ant may pick a seed from a plant and carry that seed back to it's nest. It may drop the seed along the way, or it might simply discard it for some other reason, where the seed will happily wait until the conditions are right for growth. It is estimated that as much as 50% of herbaceous plants (herbs) depend upon ants to assist in seed dispersal. In turn, the plants provide protection, food and nest sites for the ants (Environmental Graffiti, 2011).
Ants can also act as pollinators for some species of flowers and other plants. Ants do not normally play the role of pollinator, because their lack of wings limits their ability to get from plant to plant, and so they often just visit the flowers of only one plant before making their way back to the nest - which does no good for pollinating the plant. However, there are some cases, like the Euphorbia where the plants grow very low to the ground and intertwine their branches. This makes it more likely for the ants to reach multiple plants and spread the pollen.
Researchers have said that the total combined weight of all ants on Earth is the same combined weight of every person on Earth (Holldobler and Wilson, 1990). There are literally millions of ants for every single person on Earth. Ants live on every continent in the world, except Antarctica. Ants not only live, but thrive in almost all kinds of environments, including the Sahara Desert. Everywhere ants live, they are aerating and oxygenating soil, adding nutrients to the soil, controlling bug populations, transplanting seeds, pollinating plants and flowers, aiding in decomposition, moving and consuming organic and inorganic material on such a large scale that their impact may never be fully understood...or appreciated.