I find writing about ants difficult. Often there’s not a ton of information at the species level, and when you look at the genus as a whole, there’s way too much information. Still, ants are some of the most incredible insects around, so I’m going to do my best with today’s post!

You’ve probably heard of carpenter ants, but did you know there are over one thousand species of carpenter ant? They are found all over the world, particularly in forested areas. Carpenter ants are so named because they build their nests in moist and decaying wood, both in trees and in manmade structures.

Carpenter ants range in size, depending on the species. They can be anywhere from .76 to 2.54 cm long. Size also depends on the ants’ roles within their colonies, as some species have small and large workers, as well as ants in other roles. They also vary in colour, from completely black to a light brown.

A carpenter ant queen, looking quite regal. Image by Alex Wild, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though carpenter ants build nests in wood, they do not eat it. Instead, they feed on plants, nectar, and on other insects or insect products, such as honeydew from aphids. Some species of carpenter ant will ‘farm’ aphids, tending to them and then living off the sweet honeydew they produce.

Farming aphids is super cool, adding to the argument that ants are the most amazing animals on the planet. But some species have an even cooler (and grosser) method of hunting and defending themselves. These ‘exploding’ ants have enlarged glands all over their bodies, which can burst when the ants are threatened. This kills the ant, of course, but also covers the victim in a sticky substance that immobilizes it. It may seem foolish for an animal to sacrifice itself, but don’t forget that ants live for the good of the colony, and no sacrifice is too great.

Communication is key in colonial living, so carpenter ants, like most species of ant, use pheromones to send messages to the rest of the colony. Worker ants that find food will leave a trail of pheromones to mark the shortest path from the food to the nest. Other pheromones can be used to calm worker ants, or excite them so they can defend the colony. Pheromones also let ants know which ants belong to their colony and which do not.

An example of the damage carpenter ants can do to wooden boards. Image by Nwbeeson, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Carpenter ants reproduce using mating flights, which occur when things are hot and steamy (literally: nuptial flights happen when the weather is warm and humid). Female ants will mate with multiple males during this flight, and then lose their wings and head out to find new places to colonize. Once the females have found a suitable spot, they lay around twenty eggs, which hatch into workers that will help her as she continues to lay eggs. Some carpenter nests have multiple queens, though they will act aggressively towards one another and therefore have to be kept in different parts of the nest.

There’s no doubt that carpenter ants are incredible creatures. Unfortunately, their habit of nesting in wood means that certain species of carpenter ant can be serious pests, as they nest in buildings and can cause extensive damage. Other species around the world are used as a food source, though I’m not sure I’d want to eat an ant. Still, whether you view them as pests or food, you have to appreciate the wonderful complexity of carpenter ants.

Cover image by Bruce Marlin, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons