Ants are eusocial insects of the family Formicidae and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong tothe order Hymenoptera. Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the Cretaceous period, about 140 million years ago, and diversified after the rise of flowering plants. More than 12,500 of an estimated total of 22,000 species have been classified. They are easily identified by their elbowed antennae and the distinctive node-like structure that forms their slender waists.
Ants form colonies that range in size from a few dozen predatory individuals living in small natural cavities to highly organized colonies that may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals. Larger colonies consist of various castes of sterile, wingless females, most of which are workers (ergates), as well as soldiers (dinergates) and other specialized groups. Nearly all ant colonies also have some fertile males called “drones” (aner) and one or more fertile females called “queens” (gynes). The colonies are described as superorganisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together to support the colony.
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A new ergate spends the first few days of its adult life caring for the queen and young. She then graduates to digging and other nest work, and later to defending the nest and foraging. These changes are sometimes fairly sudden, and define what are called temporal castes. An explanation for the sequence is suggested by the high casualties involved in foraging, making it an acceptable risk only for ants who are older and are likely to die soon of natural causes.
Ant colonies can be long-lived. The queens can live for up to 30 years, and workers live from 1 to 3 years. Males, however, are more transitory, being quite short-lived and surviving for only a few weeks. Ant queens are estimated to live 100 times as long as solitary insects of a similar size.
Ants are active all year long in the tropics, but, in cooler regions, they survive the winter in a state of dormancy known as hibernation. The forms of inactivity are varied and some temperate species have larvae going into the inactive state (diapause), while in others, the adults alone pass the winter in a state of reduced activity.