Nature Life: Ants, The Environment and Lessons
By Obiabin Onukwugha and Ngozi Eyeh
Ants are uninvited companions to our homes, especially in rural communities. We see a line of ants walking over our walls and floors, wondering about their arrival and departure.
Hailing from the largest and definitely the oldest insect colony, ants are social insects which belong to the order Hymenoptera and class Arthropoda while its scientific name is Formicidae.
With over 10,000 species, a typical ant colony may contain as many as 20 million individuals.
Called “Gbaa”, by the Tivs, ants are among the planets most abundant insects. The total ant population, according to researchers, is estimated at one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000).
Ants are social insects and have a social system where tasks are divided among the queen and worker ants.
Their numbers compensate for their small size even as their presence in nature and their actions towards the environment are essential to the well-being of the habitats in which they live.
As fascinating creatures with significant ecological importance, ants can be quite beneficial to the environment in several ways.
Ants burrow and tunnel in the soil, which helps aerate it. This enhances water infiltration and nutrient distribution, benefiting plant growth.
Also called “Ndida” by the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, some ant species are known for seed dispersal. They collect and store seeds in their underground nests, aiding in the regeneration of plant species.
Ants are omnivores and often prey on small insects and other pests. They help control populations of insects that could otherwise become agricultural or garden pests.
Ants are also scavengers, thus contributing to the breakdown of organic matter, accelerating the decomposition process and nutrient recycling.
Some ant species modify their habitats by moving soil and creating underground chambers, which can also influence the structure of their ecosystems.
However, it’s essential to note that while ants provide these benefits, some invasive ant species can disrupt ecosystems and have negative impacts.
The ants, known to the Hausas as “Zaraye” like many other organisms, can be beneficial or detrimental to the environment depending on the context and the specific species involved.
For example, invasive species like the Argentine ant can outcompete native ants and disrupt local ecosystems.
In their natural habitat, the “Gbaa” are a source of food for many invertebrates and vertebrates, including woodpeckers and other insectivorous insects. Bears attack the trees where carpenter ants live to eat ant larvae and pupae.
Aside its environmental and climate benefits ants are known as very hard working and wise insects. They gather food in dry season and stay indoor during rainy season when they cannot freely work due to flooding.
In Proverbs 6 verse 6-11, lazy and foolish people are cautioned to go learn the ways of the ways and be wise.
Ogban, as Edo people call it, have also been featured in folklore and traditional stories from various cultures around the world. They are used to convey cultural wisdom and moral lessons, making these stories both entertaining and instructive.
One of such story is about Ant and the Grasshopper. The Ogban works hard during the summer to store food for the winter, while the grasshopper spends its time singing and dancing. When winter arrives, the grasshopper is starving and asks the ant for food. The ant refuses, explaining that it worked hard to prepare for the winter and advises the grasshopper to do the same next year.
Ants are found in tropical forests during the summer season with the remaining insect community. Ants are divided into three groups, namely – queens, workers and soldiers.
The queen ant (formally known as a gyne) is an adult, reproducing female ant. Generally she will be the mother and leader of all the other ants in that colony and is carried about by other ants during movement.
Queen ants are responsible for reproduction and dispersal while worker ants search and accumulate food, brood and maintain the nest. Only the queen ant can mate; the rest of the female ants are sterile. Male ants, also known as drone ants, are fertile and ready to mate with the queen ant.
The life cycle of an ant varies from weeks to months, depending on the environmental conditions.
Life Cycle of Ant
Ant, called “Nduna” in Ibibio, undergoes several physical developments during their life span. It goes through a complete metamorphosis, which means ants have four stages – egg, larva, pupa and adult.
After mating, the female ant lays both fertilized eggs and unfertilized eggs. The fertilized eggs turn into female ants, and the unfertilized eggs turn into male ants. Ant eggs are tiny, oval-shaped, transparent and white in colour. The eggs hatch in 7 to 14 days.
The tiny eggs hatch into larvae without eyes and legs. The larvae then undergo a series of moulting where hair starts growing. The hair is shaped like a hook, enabling worker ants to carry larvae ants as they do not have eyes and legs at this stage. The larva moults multiple times over this stage, primarily depending on adult worker ants for food.
The ant larvae transform into a pupa stage over the course of several moults. Physical features like eyes, legs and wings may start to appear. In the pupa stage, the ant has antennae and legs that are folded against its body.
The adult ant hatches out of the eggs after 6 to 10 weeks for development in the pupa stage. When the adult hatches, it is fully grown and developed as its exoskeleton prevents it from growing larger. The adult ant is soft and lightly coloured and gets darker, and the exterior part of the ant gets darker and rigid after a few hours.
Although ants are known for their miniature size, it is interesting to note that ants are capable of lifting 20 times more than their own weight. Unlike other insects that demise in weeks or months, the Queen ant can live up to 30 years. Ants also portray great cooperation as their gathering can be as large as 360 million ants.