Ants are one of the most highly evolved insects on the planet today and occupy all of the non-arctic land areas to hold a truly global distribution. Native Ants can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Over 12, salve 000 species of ants have been named and described although entomologists believe there are an additional 10,000 species still waiting to be discovered. If you think that ants bear a more than passing resemblance to wasps then you’re correct. Both ants and wasps (along with bees and hornets) belong to the insect order Hymenoptera. Ants display one of the most unique adaptations in the insect world along with other hymenoptera, truly social behavior.
Ant colonies can range in number from several dozen to several million depending on species and have a complex social interaction. At the heart of every ant colony is the Queen. Ant queen’s primary responsibility is in the reproduction and guidance of the colony. Although some species will have multiple queens or supplemental reproductive to assist with egg laying, the primary direction and control of the colony is left up to a single primary queen. This queen establishes the hierarchy in the colony and the distribution of work. The majority of eggs she will lay will ultimately mature into workers, some species of ants have a strongly differentiated “Soldier” class with unique morphological characteristics.
Of the tens of thousands of ant species in the world, there are only a few species in the Northeast region of the US, specifically New Jersey, that have achieved notoriety as a pest. The thing that truly differentiates pest ants from non-pest ants is their entrance into human environments in search of food. Most species of ant have diverse and shifting feeding patterns, allowing them to utilize several different food resources in a single environment. By utilizing multiple food sources ants can exist in an ecosystem without over-taxing its resources. This complex interrelationship with the ecosystem has lead ants to be some of the most successful organisms on the earth since they evolved approximately 120 Million years ago.
There are several ant species that are native to New Jersey that have achieved significant pest status for several different reasons. The most common pest ant would also be the most widely distributed, the Pavement Ant (Tetramorium caespitum). Pavement Ants are small black ants with a two node petiole, a pair of spines on the lower thorax and raised grooves on their exoskeleton, most notably on their heads. Pavement Ant colonies tend to be very large and nest under pavement or cement slabs as their name would imply. These large colonies can easily number over a million and have the traditional colony structure with a large central location occupied by a single queen. Pavement Ants are diverse feeders and this omnivorous nature is the very thing that will bring them into contact with humans. Pavement Ants will be the first pest ant you see in the spring, trying to raid the sugar bowl or invade the picnic basket on the first warm weekend.
The next most common type of Ant encountered by New Jersey homeowners is the dreaded Carpenter Ant (Camponotus pensylvanicus). Carpenter Ants are large (an inch long or more) black ants that nest in wood and forage mostly at night. Unlike termites, carpenter ants do not eat wood, although they will nest in wood. The name “Carpenter Ant” comes from the smooth, almost sanded, look of the gallery walls within their nest. When constructing a nest, Carpenter Ants will seek out a piece of wood, whether it be a tree limb or piece of structural timber in a home that has already been damaged by water in some way. Sometimes the presence of carpenter ants can be indicative of a leak somewhere in the structure that may not have been discovered.
Unlike pavement Ants who maintain a large central colony, Carpenter Ants will utilize a main and satellite colony system to house the tens of thousands of workers ants that will exist in the colony. Apart from the main colony, carpenter ants will establish smaller colonies that still maintain contact with, and derive direction from, the main colony, up to a few hundred feet away. It is interesting to note that occasionally when a satellite colony is separated from its main colony, it can sometime turn into a fully self-sufficient colony on its own. Carpenter Ants are voracious predators and scavengers of the insect world. Carpenter Ants have also been known to tend honeydew producing insects called Aphids in much the same way humans raise cattle.
Although Pavement and Carpenter Ants are the two ant species most likely to be encountered in New Jersey by homeowners as pests, they are only two of a dozen or so species that residents can expect to come in contact with. Different species of ants like Argentine Ants, Odorous House Ants, and Pharaoh Ants can be found in New Jersey. Some of these ants are native to North America and some are even imported from different continents! Keep an eye on future blogs in which we’ll discuss some of the lesser known ants in our area.
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