Even though ants are one of the most plentiful creatures on our planet, they still have natural enemies. Most of these natural enemies live alongside the ants and help keep their population under control. However, sometimes humans have to introduce these natural enemies to control invasive ants. Discover more about the natural enemies of ants and where they’re found.
Alcon Blue Butterfly
Image via Flickr by Lennart Tange
The Alcon Blue butterfly, which lives in Europe and northern Asia, has learned how to imitate the scent of the Myrmica ant and trick the ants into raising its young. The caterpillar develops an outer covering that makes the ants think it’s one of their young, and they bring the caterpillar back to their colony.
Once back in the nest, not only do the ants begin to feed the caterpillar more than their own young, the caterpillar can also dine on ant eggs and larvae. The butterfly’s trickery has been so successful, it has actually depleted one population of Myrmica ant, and it’s beginning to exploit another species of ant.
Red imported fire ants are native to Brazil, and their population in that country is much lower than their population in the United States. That’s because the southern part of the United States doesn’t just offer a hospitable environment for the fire ants, it also doesn’t have any natural predators of the ant. This has caused the fire ant population to explode. However, scientists are looking at introducing the Phorid fly to areas overwhelmed by fire ants to help control the ant population.
Another name for the Phorid fly is the ant-decapitator fly, which gives you a pretty good idea of how the fly attacks the ants. Phorid flies will lay their eggs in the heads of fire ants while the ants are still alive. When the eggs hatch, the larvae kill the host ant and consume the ant’s body for food.
The Eucharitid wasp lives in tropical regions around the world. While the female wasps will lay their eggs on a branch or leaf away from the ant colony, the wasp larva will emerge and try to attach itself on a foraging ant in order to make it to the colony. Once it gets inside the colony, the larva will make its way to the brood chamber and begin feeding on the ant larvae. Like the Alcon Blue butterfly, the Eucharitid wasp is able to get away with this because it takes on the same odor as the ants.
The moth butterfly lives in Australia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. While the larva of the moth butterfly enjoys the same diet of ant larvae that other predators on this list eat, it has a different way of getting its meal. A female moth butterfly will lay her eggs in the nest of tree ants. The larva comes out looking like a flat, oval slug that has an outer shell so hard and heavy the soldier ants can’t bite it or flip it over. The larva is free to eat baby ants until it turns into a butterfly.
Pathogens and Viruses
Just like we have to deal with pathogens and viruses that can harm us, ants also have diseases that will kill them. One pathogen infects both immature and adult fire ants. The diseased ants have shorter life spans, and infected queens will become so weak they stop laying eggs.
Additionally, scientists have discovered four viruses known to infect red imported fire ants. One of those viruses interferes with the normal foraging behavior of the worker ants, causing it to stop bringing food back for the colony. This results in the larvae dying and the queen becoming so malnourished she can’t lay any more eggs.
The Oogpister beetle is a large ground beetle that feeds almost exclusively on ants. Unlike some other natural predators of ants, the Oogpister beetle doesn’t try to trick the ants into taking it into the nest before preying on them. Instead, the beetle simply storms the ant nest and grabs as many ants as it can in its large jaws. It also has long legs it can use to kick away any ants that try to attack it.
What makes the Oogpister beetle even more interesting is what it can do after it eats the ants. The beetle is then able to extract the formic acid that the ants produce for their own defense and use the acid as its defense mechanism. When the beetle feels threatened, it can spray a small jet of the formic acid directly into the nose and eyes of its attacker.
It seems as though we’re always at war with ants and exterminating colonies to keep them out of our homes. However, we don’t just kill ants because they’re pests. Several countries around the world also eat ants. In Australia, honeypot ants will consume so much food their stomachs swell with a sweet, nectar-like substance. Aborigines like to eat these ants raw as a sweet treat. In Thailand, some chefs will saute red ants and their eggs to eat alone or mixed in with salads. Additionally, people in Colombia enjoy toasting and eating a species of leaf-cutter ant.
Perhaps one of the greatest natural enemies of ants is other species of ants. Some omnivore ants will attack and feed on other ant colonies. Additionally, certain smaller ants will connect tunnels from their colony to the tunnels of a colony of larger ants to steal food from the larger ants.
A particular type of queen ant won’t bother making a colony of her own. Instead, she attaches herself to the body of another ant queen to sterilize that queen and steal her food. The ant colony won’t realize they have an imposter for a queen, and they’ll take care of the parasitic queen’s eggs until the real queen eventually dies.
As you can see, it’s not easy being an ant, and these tiny creatures have plenty of natural enemies they have to look out for when they’re going about their day.