Return to Video

Mating frenzies, sperm hoards, and brood raids: the life of a fire ant queen

  • 0:07 - 0:11
    It’s June, just after a heavy rainfall,
  • 0:11 - 0:16
    and the sky is filling with creatures
    we wouldn’t normally expect to find there.
  • 0:16 - 0:19
    At first glance,
    this might be a disturbing sight.
  • 0:19 - 0:24
    But for the lucky males and females
    of Solenopsis invicta,
  • 0:24 - 0:29
    otherwise known as fire ants,
    it’s a day of romance.
  • 0:29 - 0:31
    This is the nuptial flight,
  • 0:31 - 0:35
    when thousands of reproduction-capable
    male and female ants,
  • 0:35 - 0:39
    called alates,
    take wing for the first and last time.
  • 0:39 - 0:44
    But even for successful males
    who manage to avoid winged predators,
  • 0:44 - 0:47
    this mating frenzy will prove lethal.
  • 0:47 - 0:53
    And for a successfully mated female,
    her work is only beginning.
  • 0:53 - 0:57
    Having secured a lifetime supply of sperm
    from her departed mate,
  • 0:57 - 1:02
    our new queen must now single-handedly
    start an entire colony.
  • 1:02 - 1:03
    Descending to the ground,
  • 1:03 - 1:07
    she searches for a suitable spot
    to build her nest.
  • 1:07 - 1:11
    Ideally, she can find somewhere
    with loose, easy-to-dig soil—
  • 1:11 - 1:15
    like farmland
    already disturbed by human activity.
  • 1:15 - 1:19
    Once she finds the perfect spot,
    she breaks off her wings—
  • 1:19 - 1:23
    creating the stubs
    that establish her royal status.
  • 1:23 - 1:28
    Then, she starts digging
    a descending tunnel ending in a chamber.
  • 1:28 - 1:32
    Here the queen begins laying her eggs,
    about ten per day,
  • 1:32 - 1:36
    and the first larvae hatch within a week.
  • 1:36 - 1:37
    Over the next three weeks,
  • 1:37 - 1:42
    the new queen relies on a separate batch
    of unfertilized eggs
  • 1:42 - 1:44
    to nourish both herself and her brood,
  • 1:44 - 1:48
    losing half her body weight
    in the process.
  • 1:48 - 1:50
    Thankfully, after about 20 days,
  • 1:50 - 1:54
    these larvae grow
    into the first generation of workers,
  • 1:54 - 1:59
    ready to forage for food
    and sustain their shrunken queen.
  • 1:59 - 2:01
    Her daughters
    will have to work quickly though—
  • 2:01 - 2:04
    returning their mother
    to good health is urgent.
  • 2:04 - 2:06
    In the surrounding area,
  • 2:06 - 2:11
    dozens of neighboring queens
    are building their own ant armies.
  • 2:11 - 2:14
    These colonies
    have peacefully coexisted so far,
  • 2:14 - 2:16
    but once workers appear,
  • 2:16 - 2:20
    a phenomenon known as brood-raiding
    begins.
  • 2:20 - 2:23
    Workers from nests
    up to several meters away
  • 2:23 - 2:26
    begin to steal offspring
    from our queen.
  • 2:26 - 2:28
    Our colony retaliates,
  • 2:28 - 2:31
    but new waves of raiders
    from even further away
  • 2:31 - 2:33
    overwhelm the workers.
  • 2:33 - 2:38
    Within hours, the raiders have taken
    our queen’s entire brood supply
  • 2:38 - 2:40
    to the largest nearby nest—
  • 2:40 - 2:44
    and the queen’s surviving daughters
    abandon her.
  • 2:44 - 2:46
    Chasing her last chance of survival,
  • 2:46 - 2:50
    the queen follows the raiding trail
    to the winning nest.
  • 2:50 - 2:55
    She fends off other losing queens
    and the defending nest’s workers,
  • 2:55 - 2:58
    fighting her way
    to the top of the brood pile.
  • 2:58 - 3:02
    Her daughters help their mother succeed
    where other queens fail—
  • 3:02 - 3:06
    defeating the reigning monarch,
    and usurping the brood pile.
  • 3:06 - 3:09
    Eventually,
    all the remaining challengers fail,
  • 3:09 - 3:13
    until only one queen—
    and one brood pile— remains.
  • 3:13 - 3:18
    Now presiding over several hundred workers
    in the neighborhood’s largest nest,
  • 3:18 - 3:23
    our victorious queen begins
    aiding her colony in its primary goal:
  • 3:23 - 3:25
    reproduction.
  • 3:25 - 3:30
    For the next several years,
    the colony only produces sterile workers.
  • 3:30 - 3:34
    But once their population
    exceeds about 23,000,
  • 3:34 - 3:36
    it changes course.
  • 3:36 - 3:38
    From now on, every spring,
  • 3:38 - 3:42
    the colony will produce
    fertile alate males and females.
  • 3:42 - 3:46
    The colony spawns these larger ants
    throughout the early summer,
  • 3:46 - 3:49
    and returns to worker production
    in the fall.
  • 3:49 - 3:53
    After heavy rainfalls,
    these alates take to the skies,
  • 3:53 - 3:58
    and spread their queen’s genes
    up to a couple hundred meters downwind.
  • 3:58 - 4:01
    But to contribute
    to this annual mating frenzy,
  • 4:01 - 4:06
    the colony must continue to thrive
    as one massive super-organism.
  • 4:06 - 4:10
    Every day, younger ants feed the queen
    and tend to the brood,
  • 4:10 - 4:14
    while older workers
    forage for food and defend the nest.
  • 4:14 - 4:16
    When intruders strike,
  • 4:16 - 4:20
    these older warriors fend them off
    using poisonous venom.
  • 4:20 - 4:23
    After rainfalls,
    the colony comes together,
  • 4:23 - 4:26
    using the wet dirt to expand their nest.
  • 4:26 - 4:29
    And when a disastrous flood
    drowns their home,
  • 4:29 - 4:33
    the sisters band together
    into a massive living raft—
  • 4:33 - 4:36
    carrying their queen to safety.
  • 4:36 - 4:37
    But no matter how resilient,
  • 4:37 - 4:40
    the life of a colony must come to an end.
  • 4:40 - 4:44
    After about 8 years,
    our queen runs out of sperm
  • 4:44 - 4:47
    and can no longer replace dying workers.
  • 4:47 - 4:50
    The nest’s population dwindles,
    and eventually,
  • 4:50 - 4:52
    they’re taken over
    by a neighboring colony.
  • 4:52 - 4:57
    Our queen’s reign is over,
    but her genetic legacy lives on.
Title:
Mating frenzies, sperm hoards, and brood raids: the life of a fire ant queen
Speaker:
Walter R. Tschinkel
Description:

View full lesson: https://ed.ted.com/lessons/mating-frenzies-sperm-hoards-and-brood-raids-the-life-of-a-fire-ant-queen-walter-r-tschinkel

In the spring, just after a heavy rainfall, male and female fire ants swarm the skies for a day of romance, known as the nuptial flight. Thousands of reproduction-capable ants take part in a mating frenzy, and for one successfully mated female, her work is only beginning. Walter R. Tschinkel details how the new queen builds a colony and protects it from neighboring ant armies.

Lesson by Walter R. Tschinkel, directed by Lisa Vertudaches.

more » « less
Video Language:
English
Team:
TED
Project:
TED-Ed
Duration:
04:59

English subtitles

Revisions