Sugar Ants cover the genus “Camponotus”, a large genus, comprised of around a thousand-different species, and they can be found worldwide, within forests, grasslands, mountains, and even deserts too. Like most ants, Sugar ants typically nest underground, with some species living in rotting wood, and others, up in the trees, within hollow branches, or clusters of leaves which have been stitched together to form a shelter, much like green tree ants do. Because they’re so globally ubiquitous and varied, they go by many common names. Often called “Carpenter Ants” after the wood dwelling species.
In Australia, they’re mostly referred to as “Sugar Ants” for their love of sweet foods, like tree sap, nectar and honeydew excreted from sap sucking insects, like these little leafhoppers here. The two have a mutualistic relationship. The leafhoppers offer the ants nutritious honeydew, and in return, the ants provide these little bugs protection from predators. Sugar ants can often be quite distinctive for their large polymorphic appearance.
Worker Sugar Ants
The workers vary in size and shape, often to fulfil a certain role within their colony. Minors workers are small and slender and are usually the ones doing the foraging, tending of the brood and caring of the queen. While the majors are often much larger and stockier. They have bigger heads in proportion to their bodies. These large heads are full of muscle, allowing them to deliver powerful bites. Great for crushing up and carrying food back to the nest, and defending the colony from predators. Typically, they’re seen sitting by the entrances of their nests acting like doorkeepers. Only moving to let fellow colony members pass by. On top of their powerful bites, many Sugar ants possess another lethal ability. When dealing with predators or prey, the ants will grip onto them and start curling up their bodies, as if they’re trying to sting them like a Bull ant would. But these ants don’t have stingers. What they do instead, is excrete a deadly liquid.
They use this chemical weapon as a means of stunning and subduing their prey and predators alike. In this case, they target the vulnerable leg joints of this helpless Bull ant. Sugar ants navigate as most do, by following pheromone trails laid down by their fellow colony members. But there’re some species that can perform a rather unique trait among ants. Native to Australia, and one of the most widely distributed, is the Banded Sugar ant.
Tandem Running In Sugar Ants
When foraging, these ants use social techniques which often make them the first ants to a source of food. These ants run along together, almost like they’re playing follow the leader, Well they are. This process is known as tandem running, which involves teaching and social learning. The leader ants are usually the most skilled of foragers, often having prior knowledge of the best sites to explore. Think of them as the old wise ants educating the youngers on how things are done. The leader runs rapidly in a short burst, and then pauses, waiting until she feels a tap from her follower, and then she continues on. Stopping and starting frequently to make sure her follower is still on her trail.
These tandem runs, usually consist of a couple of ants, but on occasion, there can be several workers following along, each stopping and waiting for their trailers to catch up. This unique process of communication greatly benefits the ants’ foraging capabilities. During a tandem run, the followers can discover food much faster compared to just foraging on their own. And the added presence of these ants will ensure that their colony is the one controlling the site.
Occasionally, some ants can be a little stubborn in being recruited. So occasionally, the leaders will attempt to pull others along for encouragement. Sometimes even resorting to completely picking them up and carrying them if they continue to resist. In times of plenty, Sugar ants will stock up on food and water by filling the stomachs of certain colony members. These ants become known as repletes and are used as living storage vessels. When there’s little food to be found above ground, due to times of drought or cold weather, to get a feed, the workers simply stroke the antennae of the repletes, causing them to regurgitate some of their stores.
Some Sugar ants are more specialized in this method than others. These arid dwelling species are nicknamed, “Honeypot ants” for their ability to distend their gasters to an enormous size. So large in fact, that they become unable to move on their own. Often just hanging motionlessly from the ceilings deep within their nests. Many Sugar Ants are highly competitive for territory and resources. Often seen plugging the nest entrances of other ant colonies And raiding them if given the chance. Even Bull ants have to be wary of these guys. They’re larger and more deadly, but fear the smaller ants for their chemical weaponry, and oft-times, their superior numbers too.
So, regularly, they’ll commit several ants to guard their nest entrances in order keep these dangerous intruders at bay. There are some ants that can rival them, however. Meat ants are equally as competitive. Their colonies can reach massive scales, with hundreds of thousands of individuals, and they often live right alongside Sugar ants. Despite this, the two are usually able coexist as most Sugar Ants are nocturnal, whilst Meat ants are diurnal. Although, in their active hours, they’ll constantly plug each other’s nest entrances to try and gain an edge on their competition.
Sugar Ants Are Easily Spotted
Because of their large size, Sugar ants are easily spotted by predators and make for a temping snack. Regularly, they’re targeted by birds… spiders… and other insects too. Like this hungry praying mantis. Other ants will willingly take on the weak or injured too. Here you can see just how large Sugar ants can be in comparison to the more common sized species. Nuptial flights are especially perilous for Sugar ants as the female alates are often huge and cumbersome. Making them easy prey. Birds, like this magpie, will often sit by the entrances of their nests and pick them off as soon as they emerge. If the female alates are lucky enough to survives predation and find a mate, they’ll then dig themselves out a new home.
Laying Eggs And Cocoons
A small chamber in which they’ll lay their eggs and tend to them until they develop into workers. Their first workers are very small and skittish, and highly protective of them and their developing brood. You may notice them tending to these little brown casings here. These are known as cocoons. They’ve comprised of silk which the larvae expel from special glands near their mouths. So the larvae spin themselves up in this silk, much like a caterpillar does when its ready to metamorphose into its pupal stage.
Some other ants spin cocoons too, like Bull ants… and Green Headed ants. However, most leave their brood bare. Like Big-headed ants… Rainbow ants… and Argentine Ants too. The purpose of spinning cocoons is still not fully known. It’s suggested that they assist in keeping the developing brood within clean, and protect them harmful bugs, bacteria, fungi and pathogens.
Once the brood inside has fully developed, they’ll then begin emerging. They’re cable of escaping the cocoons on their own, but it can be a little tricky at times, so the workers will often try and help out. Most of these emerging ants will be workers, which are all female. But, this particular ant looks a little different from your typical worker. It’s oddly shaped and it even has wings. This is actually a male, known as a drone. Drones don’t do anything for their colony, other than use up their resources. Their only purpose in life is to mate with winged females during nuptial flights. Shortly after which, they die. These ants are produced from unfertilised eggs, usually when a colony reaches a mature size. A typical Sugar ant colony only contains a single queen, the only ant of which can lay fertile eggs. So, what happens to a colony if this queen were to die? Well, here we have a queenless colony of Banded Sugar Ants. The queen died around 6 months ago, leaving behind a hundred or so workers.
Despite having no queen around, these ants continue to cooperate with one another and function as a normal colony would. But, with the absence of their queen, there aren’t any new workers emerging to replace the old and dying. So slowly, but surely, the colony will die off. Remarkably, the ants can actually sense that their colony’s coming to an end.
So occasionally, what the remaining workers will do is begin laying their own eggs. Sugar ant workers are sterile, so all these eggs you see here are unfertilised, and will develop into drones. It’s like a last-ditch effort to spread their genes and help ensure the survival of their species. And that really sums up Sugar Ants. They’re incredibly determined little creatures. Highly efficient in the way they both find food and subdue their prey… Extremely competitive with other ants, raiding and sabotaging at will… And amazingly resourceful for the way in which they adapt to their environment, with desert dwelling species utilizing workers as living storage jars…and some tropical species weaving leaves together to act as shelters…and many ground dwellers, heightening their nest entrances into towers when they sense rain coming, to prevent water rushing in and flooding their homes. It’s pretty safe to say, these ants will be around for a long time to come.
Hopefully, this article was informative, and gave you some interesting insight about Sugar ants as well as their uniqueness when it comes to insects. If you have any further related questions feel free to use the comment section below. Moreover, if you want to know an answer to whether insects seek and take revenge, we have a great article written on just that, you can give that a look “here“. And if you want to go through some interesting facts about insects, natgeokids has a great article written on that, you can give that a look “here“