Whether you’re dealing with an ant nest or infestation, or you’re just curious, the question of how long do ants live is both an interesting and a complicated one. As ants come in many different species, as well as caste hierarchies and development stages, different ants can have drastically different lifespans and life cycles. Even the climate and environment around them can play a drastic role in their development as ants in winter drastically slow down their activities and go into a semi-hibernation. Consequently, ants in warmer climates have a much different yearly life cycle than those in colder ones.
But to fully understand how ants reproduce, grow and develop, let’s start by differentiating between different life stages and castes.
Ant life cycle
The ant life cycle is both curious and vicious. It’s also divided into multiple stages that biologists such as the folks from the Arizona State University have carefully studied:
- Nuptial flights: The first stage of an ant lifespan is a reproduction. During this stage, the winged ant males and winged queens leave their birth nests and fly away to mate. The further away they manage to get the more diverse the gene pool of their offspring will be. Once a male impregnates another queen he typically dies while the impregnated queen starts looking for a nesting ground.
- Ant eggs: Once a queen finds a suitable spot she starts laying eggs (depending on the species the queen may first hunt or forage for food). More often than not, the queen will rely on the energy reserves released from the breaking down of her wings. The eggs a queen lays will take between 6 and 10 weeks to mesomorph into mature adults.
- Ant larvae: The next stage of an ant’s development is the larvae that hatch from the eggs. Larvae are completely blind and helpless and require help and nourishment from the queen and workers.
- Ant pupae: Once the larvae grow sufficiently they will spin a cocoon around them and turn into pupae. Inside the cocoon, they will turn into adult ants.
- Adult ants: As the ants mature at the end of the 6 – 10 weeks period they will start breaking the cocoon and getting out, usually with the help of other adult ants. The only notable physical difference between young ants and older ones is the color as young ones are paler.
The different hierarchies of ants
Ants from most species come in 3 main hierarchical castes. Each caste serves a very different and equally vital part in the development of a nest but they also have drastically different lifespans.
Male (drone) ants
Males in the ant world have drawn the short stick when it comes to lifespan. They typically live between several days and several weeks (depending on the species and environmental circumstances) and their main purpose is to fertilize queen ants. Once a male has served his purpose he dies shortly after. In the meantime, a male can be useful to a nest by defending it from other predators together with the worker ants but that’s usually an insignificant contribution compared to his main purpose.
Worker (female) ants
The working force of an ant nest is entirely female. All worker ants are female by birth even though they never reproduce. The serve their queen and do everything that needs doing in a nest. As such, their lifespan is greatly dependant on the external factors around them. In ideal conditions, a worker can live up to a couple of years but more often than not their lives are limited to several months.
Workers are the ones who hunt, forage, scout, attack other colonies, defend against predators or competition, and they are also the ones who will willingly starve themselves in the case of food insufficiency so that the queen and her eggs and larvae can survive. Depending on the species there can be a difference between “minor” worker ants and “major” ones with both types fulfilling different tasks but, in general, all worker ants live for just several months up to a couple of years.
The matriarchs in the ant world have the longest lifespan of them all. A queen can live for several years up to even several decades if the conditions are perfect. Her job is to mate with a male, nest her first generation of ants (mostly workers) and establish a nest. From then on her main goal will be to birth and care for as many ants as possible.
How do ants reproduce?
Reproduction in the ant world is initiated by the female queen when she starts releasing mating pheromones in the air. Once a male drone senses them he will fly over and deposit his genetic code in a specialized pocket in her body. The queen will then use his genetic code to fertilize her eggs. Interestingly enough, she won’t fertilize all her eggs as only female ant eggs need fertilization and the unfertilized eggs will always be male.
Factors determining the life span of ants
To summarize, the life span of an ant is largely dependent on a lot of factors:
- The species of the ant. Queens and male drones from all ant species have rather similar lifespans but the lives of workers can vary quite a bit depending on their species. For example, many house ant workers can live up to even more than 2 years while fire ant workers usually don’t finish even their second month on this planet.
- The hierarchical caste of the ant.
- The environment and climate conditions around the colony.
- Predation and competition. The workers from a nest that’s growing unchecked from any natural ant predators or competing ant colonies will have much longer lives.
- Food abundance. Ants are quite resilient to weather and starvation as the many workers of a colony will gladly starve to death so that the queen can survive. Still, the more abundant the food, the longer everyone will live.