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A yellow meadow ant (3.5 mm long)A yellow meadow ant (3.5 mm long)Ants are insects with thin waists, long, "elbowed" antennae and two strong jaws, called mandibles. More than 15,000 species of ants are known, although many more are thought to exist. They range in size from 0.75 millimetres to more than 4 centimetres (0.03–1.6 inches) long. Ants are closely related to bees and wasps and, like them, live in large colonies. These are made up of a queen, winged males, wingless workers and, in some species, soldiers. Ants have varied diets that include seeds, fruit, honeydew and other insects. Some ants use other insects to help them obtain food. Black garden ants "farm" aphids. In return for the ants' protection from ladybirds and other predators, the aphids provide the ants with honeydew, their sweet-tasting faeces.

Ectatomma tuberculatum, from the Amazon rainforestEctatomma tuberculatum, from the Amazon rainforest
Ant larvaeAnt larvae

Life cycle

An ant begins life as a grub, or a larva. It hatches out of an egg laid by the queen. It does nothing but eat, and shed its skin as it grows. When it is large enough, it spins a silk coat around itself. This hardens into a cocoon. Inside this, the larva, now known as a pupa, changes into an adult ant.


Inside an ant's nestInside an ant's nest

Inside an ants' nest

An ants' nest is a maze of tunnels and chambers under the ground, with separate chambers for eggs, larvae and food stores. Sometimes ants pile soil or leaves at the entrance to their nest. This soaks up warmth from the sun to heat the nest. The first eggs to hatch inside the nest are worker ants. Workers are females that cannot mate. They keep the nest clean and find food for the colony. Later on, winged males, known as drones, and winged females hatch out. They fly out of the nest to mate. The females become queens. Once a queen has mated her wings break off and she starts laying eggs. The workers take care of the queen's needs and look after the eggs and the larvae when they hatch out.

Soldier ants are large, wingless females that protect the colony from invasion. They have large heads and powerful jaws.

The bullet ant from the tropical forests of Central and South America has the most painful sting of any insect. It is said to hurt as much as a bullet wound.

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