Ants are familiar creatures to humans; they show up at picnics, they form long caravanlike lines bisecting sidewalks and they construct mounds that mar lawns. Despite this, by living at such a small scale, and spending a large portion of their life hidden from view; ants have many traits the layperson may be unaware of.
Ants are members of the order Hymenoptera, which includes wasps and bees. Reaching their greatest abundance in tropical forests, 10,000 species of ants are described. Ants are small individually but are great in numbers and have huge ecological impact. Worldwide, ants are some of the most important predators of small insects. Some ants are important herbivores; The leaf-cutting ants of the Amazon rain forest consume more plant material than grazing mammals do.
Ants are Strong
For their size, ants are incredibly strong. One species, the Asian weaver ant (Oecophylla sp.) has been documented carrying 100 times its own weight -- all while clinging upside down. Other species, like the Columbian leaf-cutting ant (Atta colombica) carry debris 30 times their weight. This would be like an average adult man hoisting a pickup truck over his head.
Ants are Social
Ants are social insects who distribute tasks to various castes. One caste, the workers, consists of wingless females who don’t reproduce. Workers are the caste most often seen by people. Their primary job is to search for food and bring it back to the nest to feed the queen and larvae. Worker ants have other duties, though; some workers are responsible for washing and feeding the larvae. The queen is solely responsible for egg production. Some ant colonies form super-colonies consisting of more than one queen, but it's a somewhat rare phenomenon. Males lead brief existences; their only purpose is to fertilize the queen’s eggs.
Ants Are Segmented
Like all insects, ants have three pairs of segmented legs. These legs are incredibly strong but, unfortunately for the ant, they don’t regenerate in the case of a lost one, since adults do not molt or shed their skin. Ants also have segmented antennae, which are useful in identification. Different species of ant have different numbers of antennae segments. Further, some ants have clubbed antennae, others do not. In keeping with their segmentation, ant bodies have three sections: head, thorax and abdomen. These segments create the look of a “pinched waist” which helps to distinguish them from termites which lack the definitive waist. The head carries all of the sensory inputs like eyes and antennae; the thorax carries internal organs as well as serves as the attachment point for the legs; and the abdomen holds internal organs and -- in species with them -- the venomous stinger.