The term "army ants" (also known as legionary ants or marabunta more locally) is the name given to a specific type of ants who even though belong to more than 200 thousand species of ants, share very many similar behavior characteristics.
The two most prompted characteristics of the army ants are the fact that they're notorious for collective "raiding" type style of foraging and in the fact that they don't build permanent nests (being the "nomads" of the ant world in a sense). They're all highly aggressive, territorial, usually larger than other ants, having red as their dominant color and being a nuisance in general!
Their morphology is consisted of:
- -The Queen
The worker "caste" of ants is composed mostly of sterile female ants who do most of the work, it being foraging, taking care of the queen or taking care of her eggs. They're usually blind or restricted to only having one visual lens and mostly direct their behavior and path taking by following the chemical pheromone trail left by other ants or guided by smells that require their attention in general.
Soldier ants are physically bigger and more aggressive/territorial than the worker ants and have bigger mandibles. As the name suggest, soldier ants do what soldiers usually do - they're entrailed with protecting the colony, fighting over resources and carrying the most heavy loads back to the colony.
Males are very large ants with specific genitalia and their only purpose is to mate. Males, after being born usually leave the colony and fly away, seeking a queen to mate with. Some males will stay in the colony and mate with the existing queen. Unwanted males who want to mate but aren't allowed can have their wings forcibly removed by the workers so they can't cause any trouble.
Real army ant colonies only have one Queen which the largest and the only female ant capable of reproduction in the colony with the sole purpose of laying eggs. She's blind and lays over 4 million eggs a month.
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Army ants facts
As we mentioned before, three characteristics are highly applicable to army ants;
a) Army ants are highly territorial, aggressive and one of the best ant species of foragers there are. They usually send a scouting party to find food to forage, then the scouting party releases pheromones depending if they need help or protection, in that case the response is having that chemical trail being followed by workers and/or soldier ants respectfully.
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Don't let the name "foragers" fool you, these ants are far from harmless! In fact, these ants are one of the most ferocious and dangerous ants there are out there on the planet. When they can't find anything to forage, their soldier ants create forgeable material by hunting! Equipped with deadly mandibles capable of releasing toxin, in numbers they're capable of taking down things million times larger than them (as we'll see later in the article).
b) They don't build stationary nests and are nomads. This is due to the fact that army ants have only one queen which lays over 4 million eggs a month and as such, they have rapidly expanding and growing colonies. As such, there aren't many places so rich in resources that can sustain a growing army ant colony so they can't stay in one place for too long, instead constantly moving, seeking new resources and following the chemical trail of the ever seeking scout party.
c) Unlike other ant, army ants have only one True Queen which is the center and the heart of the nomad colony. This characteristic is peculiar and only happens with army ants. Other types of ants can have more than one Queen and when that becomes the case, the 2nd Queen simply takes half of the ant population and just migrates to a new nest. Army ants however being true nomads, having a 2nd Queen will be contradictory to their behavior and the 2nd Queen will be a direct competition for resources of the main Queen, so they don't allow for that to happen (often by murdering a fertile female ant when born if the current Queen is healthy and fertile).
African army ants
The term "African army ants" is used to describe a specific species of army ants, more specifically the most aggressive and physically largest army ant species (also known as driver ants, present in Africa).
African army ants are notorious for being a big nuisance for people who come in contact with them as with their foraging and swarming nature (plus being really aggressive/territorial and big), they're pretty hard to deal with. Exponentially, even if you do deal with the "scouting party", they'll release pheromones of "danger" which will act as a trail for the soldier African army ants to follow to wage war on you. The soldier African army ants are even bigger than the worker ones and people have reported that their sting is highly, highly painful. To put it in a comparison, imagine having to deal with usual (let's say, European ants) on a blazing hot day just because you dropped a bag of chips in the kitchen. Now imagine a swarming, more numerous, larger in size, highly aggressive and painfully stinging African soldier army ants - it doesn't sound pleasant, does it?
Army ants eating humans & cows?
There's an interesting short story called "Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson in which he describes his struggle in battling against the army ants, protecting his employees, his farm and his cattle (cows) from marauding hordes of angry, hungry and dangerous army ants. This short story has inspired much fiction around the notorious danger of these ants, most notably in the movies of Indiana Jones (albeit a bit hyperbolized, as in the movie the ants eat up two people in a matter of minutes).
However, does that not mean they're not capable of killing a human.
Even though army ants stick to easy prey such as other bugs, beetles and birds, if the colony is in a migration process and they come across something they wouldn't usually attack but it proves to be an opportune chance at the time, they will do it.
We already mentioned that they're migrating nomads, come in huge swarms, are very aggressive, the fact that their Queen lays over 4 million eggs a month and the fact that they're one of the (and probably THE most dangerous) species of ants in the world.
So if a cow isn't usually their target, if the cow is diseased, is hurt (has a broken leg for an example) or it's a small lamb, if on its path, it's been recorded that the colony WILL attack it with worker ants trying to bite of pieces of flesh while the soldier ants actively trying to kill the target. While it may take time or even ultimately the cow may be too large for the ants to kill, just remember that with each bite they insert a small amount of venom in the bloodstream of the animal. Now, imagine having thousands of ants doing it for hours - it's natural that in such a rare circumstance when everything at once happens that the ants will and eat the cow.
The same principle works with humans as well - imagine if you're stranded with a broken leg out there in the wilderness and a swarming army ant colony of billions of ants is going towards you. In a normal circumstance, you'll just move out of their way but if hurt and incapable of moving, the swarm can eventually overwhelm you and not kill you as a lion would perhaps, but choke you with getting into your mouth or putting you to sleep as your immune system fails of all the toxic bites they will apply. After that, the hunt turns into a foraging job.
How to get rid of army ants?
There are multiple way of getting rid of army ants and here I'm going to list the few best ways, listed in order of how dangerous the ant swarm is starting with the most dangerous situation first;
*A pesticide soaked cotton ball
If the army ants have gotten their way into the kitchen, the most abrasive way to get rid of them is to soak up cotton balls with pesticide and water and put them on their trail. Resist the urge and don't kill any ants as when they die they'll release pheromones which will further signal an alarm. Instead, just put the pesticide soaked cotton ball on their path and since army ants are usually blind or only have one viewing lens, they'll be unable to differentiate the pesticide cotton soaked ball from a huge ball of sugar. As such, they'll focus on carrying it home as it'll be the largest piece of food in their eyes. Regardless of if they manage to carry it back or not, you should have rid yourself of the problem as all of the ants who participate in moving the ball will die and will signal the other ants to leave as "this place has no food, it's poisonous" or even if they manage to bring it back to the hive, it will simply exterminate them all.
If you aren't gadget savvy or simply don't want to bother making "mouse traps" for army ants, premade entrapment baits are sold in almost any hardware stores. However, if you don't want to waste money a simple mixture of mint jelly and boric acid also does wonders. The baits will also have a retrospective effect as all the ants that will die trying to forage the baits will release pheromones signaling other ants that "there's no food here and that this place is dangerous".
*Protecting the perimeter
Army ants are highly resourceful and will find any loopholes that will get them in your home. As such, try to locate any and such "parameter breaches" such as drainage, leakage, window and wall cracks, floor openings and such. After locating any breach (especially if it's been previously used by the ants to infiltrate your house), either seal it or place entrapments to deter them. Remember, physically killing the army ants makes them release pheromones that signal the soldier ants to come and make more trouble (following the chemical trail), but death by toxins makes them release pheromones which will signal the other ants to abandon this forage raid as "the spoils have been spoiled"
*Keeping the exterior ant-safe
The most important thing you can do to keep your exterior safe is to prevent ant nesting. That means clear any piles of wood or bricks in which the nomadic ants can safely hide and nest right under your eye. Other things you can do is trim trees and shrubs for the same exact reason (also see if any trees are in direct touch with your home as that's an easy pathway in). Last but not least, if you have any sprinklers in your yard see if they do get the walls and their cracks moist, making them perfect nesting places. If that's the case, just move the sprinklers to another location where they won't encourage ant nesting.
*A clean home is a safe home
Last but not least, it need to be noted that for the ants to come there needs to be something out there (or in this case, inside the home) to attract them in the first place. If you just retain a higher level of hygiene and don't leave any grease or sugar drops around, the ants will simply be less incentivized to invade your home. Just eat carefully, cook with precaution, don't leave any food chunks around, mop the floor more frequently and don't leave any unwashed dishes with grease and sugar on them for too long. The combination of all these things should lead to a home that'll be less attractive for the ants and in retrospect, safer for you.