Mosquitos, spiders, bees, wasps, fleas, lice, bed bugs, and ants; just a few of the many insects that can bite and leave us with sore, itchy bumps on our skin. Some bites last a few days and others for weeks. And bites from insects such as spider and scorpions can even be fatal.
Insects attack for all sorts of reasons – To each flesh, to consume blood for survival, or often simply to protect themselves. Ants live underground and there are literally trillions of them. If we were to weigh all the ants in the world, they would weigh as much as all of the people. But is this crazy theory true?
The claim was originally made by Harvard University professor Edward O Wilson, and the German biologist Bert Hoelldobler, in their 1994 book Journey To The Ants. They referenced an earlier estimate made by British entomologist, C B Williams, who calculated that the number or insects alive on earth at any given moment was one million trillion. “If, to take a conservative figure, one percent of this host is ants, their total population is ten thousand trillion,” wrote Wilson and Hoelldobler. “Individual workers weigh on average between 1 to 5 mg, according to the species. When combined, all ants in the world taken together weigh about as much as all human beings.” So it certainly sounds like it could be true.
That’s a lot of ants! Ok, so why do they bite? There are only really two reasons that ants bite people, other animals, and their enemies. The first, and most common, is because they feel threatened and so will do whatever is required to protect their colony and themselves. And the second is so they can cut out little chunks from anything that they find edible. And in some in some cases our flesh is one of those edible items on the ant’s menu. So how does this behavior differ from species to species? To answer that question we first needed to do a bit of digging on ants as a species.
Facts About Ants
- There are more than 12,000 species of ants all over the world.
- According to different estimates, ants can carry 10 to 50 times their body weight! This would be like an average size second grader lifting a car or even a small truck. Ants are so strong because they are so small, their muscles are thicker, relative to their body size than in larger animals, and they can produce more force pound-for-pound.
- Some queen ants can live for many years and have millions of babies.
- Ants don’t have ears. They communicate using chemicals, which they sense with their antennae. They release pheromones into the air with specific messages, such as “Follow me to this food!” or “Attack the intruder!”
- Ants don’t breathe with lungs like you and I. Oxygen enters through tiny holes all over the body and carbon dioxide leaves through the same holes.
- When the queen ant dies, the colony can only survive a few months. Queens are rarely replaced and the workers are not able to reproduce.
- When ants fight, it is usually to the death.
- And of course, ants bite! But do all ants bite? All ants can bite if they need to, but the answer isn’t that simple, because as we’ve explained, some bite as a defense mechanism, whereas others use their biting aggression for acquiring food from predators. Let’s look at a few examples. Red imported fire ants – These are nasty.
If you see one, run the other way. They’re called fire ants because the sting is supposed to burn like fire. A unique characteristic of these ants is that if they feel threatened, they will sting multiple times. Their sting usually produces a rash of swollen red spots that develop into blisters that can last up to a week. Some people have a dangerous allergic reaction to fire ant stings and will need immediate medical attention.
Acrobat ants use their sting to hunt for food. They will enter a home that has sustained previous damage by other insects, such as carpenter ants or termites. These ants feed on sweets and proteins, which can be found in areas such as the kitchen or pantry. So be careful not to leave lollies out or you’ll end up with an infestation. Harvester ants – Harvester ants are aggressive and sting their prey multiple times, similar to fire ants. Their sting can cause painful sores and possible allergic reactions in people and also animals. Some species have reverse barbs that actually break off in the sting site, like honey bee stings.
Field ants do not have stingers but they can still sting…how? Many species have an opening on their abdomen through which they can spray formic acid when they feel threatened. A bit like how a spitting cobra attacks. When the ant shoots the acid onto a patch of skin that has just been pinched by their mandibles, the effect is very similar to being stung, and can leave a sore rash. How dangerous can an ants bite be?
There’s one ant we haven’t yet mentioned and that’s the Siafu, or African driver ant. They are known to slash flesh on your lips, eyes and nostrils, before also releasing formic acid, which travels to the internal organs leaving the victim in pain and darkness. This is the only ant that could potentially devour a person and according to Forbes magazine, they have been known, or at least rumored, to have killed infants. So if you take a trip to Africa, beware of these ants.