The queen ant and male ants mate with each other mid-air in a ritual termed the nuptial flight, which typically occurs in the summer months.
The male ants insert their aedeagus into the female reproductive opening and ejaculate their sperm which ultimately travels into the queen spermatheca.
A queen ant can lay even up to 300 million eggs throughout her lifetime. She stores the sperm obtained from the male ants for the rest of her life and uses it for fertilizing her eggs.
Let’s take a deeper look at the overall ant mating and the reproductive process.
The Ant Mating and Reproductive Process in a nutshell: How do ants have babies?
- Step 1. Nuptial Flights: The male ants and queen ant engage in a mating ritual known as the nuptial flight which takes place in the warmer months of the year. Generally, the males fly out of the nests in swarms and wait for the female queen. The queen joins them later on. The male ants die shortly after the mating process.
- Step 2. Wing Shedding: After mating, the queen ant sheds off her wings and forms a new nest, preferably underground. She stores the sperm obtained during the mating and uses them when she starts laying her first batch of eggs. The queen ant doesn’t eat anything for many weeks after mating and uses the muscular energy from the wings that it has shed to live off for these few weeks.
- Step 3. Nesting: After the initial batch of worker ants is produced, the queen focuses strictly on growing the population of the nest. She keeps on producing worker ants on a regular basis as the worker ants are solely responsible for taking care of the work of building the colony (including conquering larger surface areas and enhancing the nest size, acquiring food, looking after the eggs, and defending the nest from predators).
- Step 4. New Queens: After producing a satisfactory number of worker ants (when the colony stabilizes) the ant colony then starts generating queen ants the alates (which are the winged reproductively mature ants, the young queens, and male ants). After growing up, these alates go out, mate, and set up their own new colonies.
Why do Nuptial Flights only occur at a particular time of the year?
Nuptial flights are totally dependent upon the weather. Generally, during the months of July, August, and September, swarming ants are more commonly seen as these are the months where the weather remains hot and humid in most places.
These weather conditions are just perfect for the nuptial flight. Hence these flights are only seen at this particular phase of the year.
Why do male ants die after mating?
Male ants die after mating as their purpose in this world has been fulfilled. The main role of male ants is to mate with the queen ant so that the queen ant can have more than enough sperm in reserve so she can go on laying eggs for years.
Once the process of mating is done and dusted, the queen ant sheds her wings as they are no longer required. She won’t participate in another nuptial flight in her life. Similarly, as the role of the male ants is fulfilled and they have ensured that their genetic signature will be carried forward into the next generation, they die.
What happens if you kill the queen ant? Will the ant colony die?
Two things can happen. Either, eventually, with the flow of time, the colony of the queen ant will die out. Otherwise, the queen ant of the colony can get simply replaced with a new and young queen ant.
1. If No Other Queen Takes Over
In most scenarios, if the ant species is monogyne, when the queen dies, the colony will eventually die.
If the queen dies and no queen ant takes over, it will take some time for the colony to die out (depending upon how many eggs the queen has successfully laid in that colony beforehand).
The worker female ants will go on with their duties of collecting food, defending the nest, and looking after the eggs which haven’t yet transformed into ants.
With the flow of time, these workers will die and even the ants formed from the last reserved stockpile of eggs will grow up and end up dying at some point. So, at that stage, the whole colony will die out as the majority of the newer queens will move out to make their own colonies.
However, there are many exceptions to this depending upon the ant species.
2. If the Queen Takes Over
For some species of ants, the queen gets replaced when she does.
The new young queen ant will carry forward the duties of growing the ant population from its predecessor and the colony will keep on working like it used to.
For example, within the species of ant called Aphaenogaster senilis, they replace their queen with a new queen. The worker ants keep on tending the eggs and make sure that a new queen is being formed.
A queen can lead a long life spanning over several decades before it dies. In a lab-made setup of Lasius niger, the queen lived for 29 years!
How can you tell if a queen ant has mated?
Once the queen ant has mated, it goes solo and gives rise to its own colony.
Then throughout its life, it will preferably stay hidden in its nest and generally won’t come out at all, as its main purpose will be to keep on laying eggs and expand the power of that particular colony in terms of numbers.
So once it establishes a colony, it can be very hard to get your eyes on a queen ant. But in case you do, here are a few signs to tell if the queen ant you are seeing has mated or not…
- Generally, it won’t have any wings. After mating queen ants get rid of their wings as their purpose has been served. (However, in exceptional cases, the queen can end up producing the first sets of eggs without shedding off their wings but it will eventually end up doing that later on).
- The size of the queen ant will be the largest in the whole population, you will know it when you see it.
- As there normally won’t be any wings, if you look closely, you will be able to see two marks on their thorax which are the places where they used to have their wings.
- The abdomen of the ant will look swollen and bloated, a condition termed as physogastrism. For this condition to occur it can take up to a few months from the mating day.
- Often times the queens with bloated abdomen end up cleaning that area of the body. So if you end up capturing the queen and take steps to set up your own ant nest at home, then you will find that the queen ant will cleanse their abdomen after regular intervals, which is another sign of its mating.
So if you find a larger-sized ant without any wings with two similar marks on its thorax, and its abdomen looks a bit swollen than other ants, then it’s definitely your lucky day, you are looking at the ant queen!
Can queen ants lay eggs without mating?
The queen ants generally mate once in their lifespan and can keep the sperm stored for a long time, for future use. It then uses that reserved storage to keep on laying eggs throughout its life.
So no, she cannot lay fertilized eggs without mating as she needs sperm which can only be obtained from male ants via the process of mating. This sperm can then be used to produce fertilized eggs which later grow up as female ants.
If she ends up producing unfertilized eggs, those can only grow up to be male ants. But to keep the colony stable and functional, female workers are needed, and there needs to be male sperm for that.
The female ants form the majority of the ant population and even consist of the future queen. So instead of mating every time she wants to lay eggs, the queen ant lays eggs using the sperm from the reserved storage and this process keeps on happening throughout her lifecycle.
Queen ants and male ants are the only ants that can participate in the mating process. Female worker ants do not reproduce.
Generally, in the warmer months of the year, they perform nuptial flights. During these flights, the queen ant mates with multiple male ants. The queen ant uses the stored sperm to raise a new colony of ants.
She sheds off her wings after the mating process as she won’t participate again in another of the nuptial flights. From then on, she spends her whole life laying eggs and increasing the strength of her colony.