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Why Harvester Ants Are in Danger of Surviving

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Harvester antsIn the world of harvester ants there are some twenty-six different species; however, the two most commonly known species of harvester ants are the Western harvester ant (commonly referred to as the red harvester ant) and the Texas harvester ant. Of these two species the red harvester ant is the most well-known species.

The Red Harvester Ant

The red harvester ant is most recognized by myrmecologists, or ant lovers, as the ant most recommended to live in ant farms; however, red harvester ants can also be found in the wild as well. Red harvester ants are known for the red orange color, hence the name “red harvester ant” and are predominantly found in the Southwestern United States. Red harvester ants are easily recognized as being a much larger ant species than other commonly seen ants, measuring between ¼ to ½ an inch long as worker ants and their habitats are particularly recognizable as well.

Where do Harvester Ants Live?

Red harvester ants make their homes in open areas and remove all vegetation from that area in a circular pattern so they are relatively easy to spot. Worker ants within the colony may deposit small rocks close to the entrance of the colony which can be as small as one foot in diameter or as wide as four feet and can be anywhere from two to ten inches high. Oftentimes red harvester ants will remove vegetation in an extremely large circle that radiates as far as thirty-five feet away from the colony mound. The reason for cleaning their territory is generally unknown although some entomologists believe that it could be to help regulate temperatures within and around the mound while others believe that it has more to do with making it easier to spot intruders and predators around the colony. The worker ants are believed to deposit small rocks or dead leaves around the top of the mound as well in an effort to keep the colony warm.

What do Harvester Ants Eat?

The red harvester feed predominantly on seeds which they locate locally to their mound. While the red harvester ants will feed on a variety of seeds as well as grasses and even dead insects they tend to prefer to keep their diet homogenous until no more of that food is available to the colony when they will begin to eat a different food staple. The ants in the colony obtain food by traveling out from the nest as far as 31 miles in search of seeds and other food supplies. Looking at the top of a red harvester ant mound will sometimes reveal trails leading out from the colony. Trails can be as few as three or as many as eight and are used by the ants to go out to seek food and bring that food back to the colony.

The Harvester Ant Colony

Within the red harvester ant colony there are a variety of different ants whose duties within the colony change depending on their position. The scout ants are assigned the job of scouting for food which means that they are responsible for exiting the mound each morning and following the trails that emanate from the mound in search of food. As they progress along trails the scout ants leave scent markers so that the worker ants that follow will be able to track them and collect any food that has been recovered. Ants will follow the existing trails that emanate from the mound until they end, if no food is found on the existing trail then the ants will continue out from the existing trails in varying directions with one ant per direction. These scout ants that forge new pathways are looking for new supplies of food to mark for the worker ants to bring back to the colony. Food is brought back to the colony where it is hoarded in stores.

An Ordered Ant Society

While, within the colony, the scout ants are out looking for new food sources and the worker ants are busy fetching these new food sources back to the colony, the remaining ants, the “middens” tend and care for the colony and the mound. The middens are all female ants as are the workers. The middens clean the colony by removing dead ants and taking them to an area of the colony that humans would recognize as a trash pile. Within a trash pile are dead ants as well as various other items that the ants consider trash and wish to remove from the active colony. It is through this assignment of roles within the colony that the ants maintain such an ordered hierarchy in their society. With each ant having a specific duty there is no question as to where each ant should be during the daily routine.

The Queen Harvester Ant

The hierarchy of the red harvester ant colony begins, like many other insect hierarchies, with the queen. The queen is a winged alate (an ant capable of mating) that has been fertilized by a male alate. The males generally die after mating and the queens leave to begin their own colony. The queen red harvester ant is the source of the worker ants within her colony and throughout her lifetime she will continue to produce worker ants. A queen red harvester ant can live anywhere from one year up until approximately twenty years, all the while producing worker ants to populate her colony.

Although red harvester ants are utilized in many ant farm businesses the ants that are shipped to individuals wishing to begin their own ant colony are only worker ants and therefore the colony will eventually die out. It is illegal within the United States to ship a queen red harvester ant because if she escaped and began a colony in a non-native area it could become quite a problem for the new area she inhabits. While ant farms can survive for months at a time without a queen they will not survive indefinitely due to the lack of reproduction within the all female colony of worker ants.

Wild Harvester Ants Are in Danger of Surviving

In the wild red harvester ant populations seem to be on the decline. Many biologists believe that the red harvester ants are being pushed out of their territory by imported red fire ants and argentine ants. These two varieties of ant are not native to the areas where the red harvest ant lives; however, they are particularly invasive and are providing a lot of competition for the red harvester ants when it comes to feeding. With more competition for their food supplies the population of red harvester ants is dwindling.

This Puts Horned Lizards in Danger of Surviving as Well

It is not only other species of ants that are affecting the populations of red harvester ants either, these insects, although not a particularly pleasant encounter for humans, make the perfect meal for horned lizards that have a particularly tough and scaly skin which is impermeable by the fire ant’s sting or bite. These horned lizards feed almost exclusively on red harvest ants and in areas where the horned lizards have become a protected species the red harvest ant population is lower. That said, however, these two species are dependent upon each other and in areas where the red harvest ants have been eliminated by competing ant species the horned lizards are also endangered because of the lack of red harvest ants for them to feed upon.

Harvester Ant Defense System

While the horned lizards have a particularly tough exterior that can hold up to the sting and bite of a red harvest ant, humans and many other creatures that inadvertently wander in the direction of the colony, are not so well protected. When the red harvest ant’s colony is disturbed ants will come out of the mound in full force ready to attack whatever disturbed the mound whether it is a human or an animal they don’t discriminate. The red harvest ant will defend its colony by “biting” with their mandibles as well as stinging them with their stingers which are located on their abdomens.

Red harvest ants are particularly aggressive in defending their colony and their sting is particularly painful and can sometimes cause allergic reactions in both animals and humans that are prone to allergies to other insects. Once they begin biting and stinging it can be rather difficult to shake off a red harvest ant colony but it is advisable to shake off the ants and move away from the colony’s mound as quickly as possible. While the bite and sting of a red harvester ant can be particularly painful and even life threatening to those with allergies, red harvester ants will generally not bite or sting unless they are forced to do so in defense of their colony. It is not advised that you handle red harvester ants, however, because the slightest inkling of threat will cause these insects to treat you as an intruder to the colony.

Each Ant Colony Carries a Unique Scent

Like many other species of ants the red harvester ant does not take likely to any intruder to their colony, whether this intruder is the foot of a human or another ant. Even if an intruding ant is another red harvester ant it will not be accepted in to the mound by the colony. Ants that hail from one colony carry a distinct scent that is unique to their colony and ants that come from a different colony carry a different scent. Upon moving in to another ant’s colony the individual intruder will be attacked just as any other creature stepping in to the red harvester ant mound would be attacked. Red harvester ants, however, are not believed to be cannibalistic even though they do feed on other dead insect carcasses it is believed that at least within their own colony dead red harvester ants will be taken to the “trash pile.” What is ultimately done with invading red harvester ants from other colonies is unknown as they would surely not make it out of the foreign red harvester ant colony alive.

Harvester Ants Stay Outdoors

Red harvester ants are generally not a nuisance to humans as they do not enter the home or seek shelter indoors. These large ants are strictly outdoor insects that feed and thrive outdoors (or at least within the safety of a secluded ant farm) and are not happy to live indoors. There are occasions when the red harvester ant impinges on humans though, generally this is when a colony of red harvester ants builds their home on someone lawn or on a golf course as not only are the mounds displeasing to the eye but these areas are frequently walked upon and consequently many people are at risk for being bitten or stung. It is generally a good idea to call in pest control professionals to eliminate unwanted colonies of red harvester ants in order to reduce the likelihood of being injured during elimination. Red harvester ants are most efficiently eliminated through the use of fire ant bait; however, this bait is poisonous and should be used with care.

The Miracles of Earths’ Species

The red harvester ant colony is something of a machine and while they often make themselves unwanted by virtue of their mound placement they are creatures that prove the true miracle that is nature. Each individual red harvester ant may not amount to much but within a colony where each ant has its own specific job and knows nothing about the entire machine within which it works, the individuals come together to work as one well oiled machine. With a duty for each ant and a hard-working ant for each duty the red harvester ant colonies are a clear example of what it means to live as one. With just one group of their colony removed a mound of ants would be unable to function and perform the duties necessary to its survival but through an elegantly adapted means of communication the entire ant colony is able to work together and create a safe and secure life for every member of the colony. They may not appear to be much on the outside but in the grand scheme of things these little insects are a sign of what truly miraculous creatures walk the planet Earth.

Amy grew up in England and in the early 1990's moved to North Carolina where she completed a bachelors degree in Psychology in 2001. Amy's personal interest in writing was sparked by her love of reading fiction and her creative writing hobby. Amy is currently self employed as a freelance writer and web designer. When she is not working Amy can be found curled up with a good book and her black Labrador, Jet.
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8 Comments on "Why Harvester Ants Are in Danger of Surviving"

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Pepper Gregory
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Pepper Gregory

Thank you Amy! My daughter finally got her ants in yesterday, and what do you know..nosey little brother spilled it this morning. Thanks to your information we will just replace the ants and sand with what we have around here.

Mike Cornett
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Mike Cornett

I remember having an ant farm as a kid. We would put a small piece of hamburger in for feeding. They sucked the blood out of it. They seemed to love it. Is this ok to do?

Mike Cornett
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Mike Cornett

Is it possible to get a young Queen ant in the mix I order and develop for reproduction?

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Ants are hard workers. You should have seen them strip this chicken leg I dropped while on a picnic. It was amazing. The leg was stripped to the bone by the end of the day!

Anonymous
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Anonymous

I have seen many nests poisoned simply because they were seen. Preservation of the ant will enhance preservation of the Horned Lizard. Do you poison the Harvester ant and then say I never see Horned Lizards anymore?

Mick
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Mick
No, harvester ant colonies should never be eliminated if at all possible. Harvester ants are much more docile than imported red fire ants (S. invicta) and are actually slow to sting, although the sting is painful. Harvester ants do compete with the invasive fire ants and elimination of the Harvester ants may make invasion by the imported fire ants more likely. Harvester ants are the primary natural diet of the Horned Lizard, which are species of concern or threatened in most states, and Horned Lizards have always disappeared from any areas where Harvester ants, their main food, dies out. Always… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
Ants are so hardworking and so cool. Red harvester ants, and just ants in general, are really amazing creatures. It is a shame that there is a problem with their decline in population as they really are a miraculous creature and societal animal to observe. This article did a really good job of putting that into context. The thing I think I find the most amazing about the red harvester ant colony is the fact that literally thousands and thousands of ants all come from the same queen. Furthermore, that queen can live up to twenty years, meaning it is… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
Perhaps one of the most amazing things is how the entire colony has the ability to mobilize against a common threat. In order to do this, they have to use some kind of chemical scent, a pheromone emitted by the ants themselves. It seems like an effective method whatever it is. I have personally been attacked by red harvester ants and it is no pleasant experience. At first, I did not even know I was being attacked. Then I felt a slight pinch or sting on my foot (I was barefoot at the time, stupid I know) and mostly disregarded… Read more »
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