Ant Anatomy 101

ant anatomy

Seeing ants from a distance is unremarkable. They're one of the most common household pests in the United States, with more than 12,000 different species in existence. So when you notice one, you probably don't think much about it. Seeing them up close, however, is a different story.

Ants are built like powerful machines, able to carry more than 10 times their body weight and withstand a great deal of force. Understanding their anatomical makeup and functions is beneficial to knowing how to treat and control them. So let's take a closer look, shall we?

What are the Body Parts of Ants?

Like all insects, an ant has six legs and is made up of three parts: the head, thorax and abdomen.

The Head

Arguably the most important part of the ant is located on its head — the mandibles. These are essentially jaw bones, but they're used to hold and carry things, like our hands. Powerful muscles located in the mandibles allow the ant to capture prey, bite, dig and perform other essential jobs. The mandibles cover the ant's mouth, which is used to eat (obviously) and clean itself.

Ants have notoriously poor vision, despite the fact that they have compound eyes. To make up for this, attached to the front of their heads are long, elbowed antennae. The shape allows them to move the antennae both in front of and behind their heads, so they know what's surrounding them as they crawl. The antennae are also used to smell and communicate with other ants.

The Thorax

The architecture of the ant's thorax is unique among species of flying insects. Worker ants have an enlarged thorax and strong neck muscles that allow them to hunt and carry prey many times their own weight.

The thorax also has muscles that allow the insect's legs to function. Ants are climbers and runners and can move very quickly for their size. At the end of each leg, they have a hooked claw that helps them climb and carry objects.

While not all ants have wings, the male ants and new queens do, and they're located on the thorax. The wings are only used during mating season so the ants can travel to their mates. After the mating has taken place, the male ant dies and the queen removes her wings.

Bonus fact: There's technically a fourth segment of the ant's body, called the "petilous." This is a very small body part located between the thorax and abdomen. It allows the ant to be flexible and gives it a slim, tapered waist.

The Abdomen

This is where the ant's vital organs, digestive system and reproductive parts are located. It's also referred to as the "gaster." This section of the ant's body is composed of a series of plates connected with elastic tissue. The plates tuck into one another and, because of the flexible tissue, can expand when necessary. The abdomen is protected by a strong, waterproof exoskeleton.

For added protection and to fend off attackers, some ants have a tiny opening at the tip of their gaster, which they use to spray out a harmful acid. Other ants have a sting that injects venom.

Do Ants Have Organs?

When it comes to organs, ants don't have a single heart or set of lungs, they have a series of tiny holes all over their bodies that allow them to take in and emit oxygen. These tiny holes are called spiracles. Their hearts aren't organs but are instead long tubes that pump blood between their heads and the rest of their bodies.

Ants have a pretty typical digestive system. They take in food through their mouths, it passes through their stomachs and waste is excreted through their rectums.

As for brains, ants have a series of nerves and fibers that store simple information and allow the ants to process complicated data received from the antennae, joints, body hairs and eyes. The ants are sensory-driven insects and use this information to remember their locations, where they're going and how to get back to their colonies.

Can an Ant Survive Without an Abdomen or Other Body Parts?

The ant life isn't an easy one. Brushes with nature — and other insects — sometimes leave ants injured. When ants lose individual legs, for example, they aren't able to rely on their remaining legs for continued movement. Instead, they repeatedly try to put weight on the phantom limbs, which makes them stumble and slows them down considerably. They can still survive, though, as long as they have help from other ants. This is likely to happen, not because ants are that altruistic but because they're genetically disposed to helping other injured ants.

If an ant loses a more crucial part of its body, like the gaster, where its internal organs and digestive system are found, you'd think it would die immediately, right? Well, that's actually not the case. Ants will carry on for a few hours, maybe longer. How is this possible? Since there's not a single heart pumping blood and a set of lungs taking in oxygen, the tiny holes in the exoskeleton will transport oxygen to other parts of the body.

How Knowing Ant Anatomy Helps Ant Control

It turns out ants aren't so inconsequential after all. They're tough warriors with a thick skin (literally) who are able to complete pretty amazing feats for their size. Knowing how to correctly identify one and learning their survival methods is helpful when it comes to pest control and treatments.

Ants don't retreat easily. As you can see, they're survivors. And they travel in groups, so seeing one means there are likely several around. This is because ant queens can lay up to 800 eggs in a single day, and since they live for an average of ten years or more, that means creating millions of ants over their lifetimes.

If you have nuisance or destructive ants in your home, getting them out and keeping them out is more complicated than spraying some pesticide. The entire colony has to be found and eliminated, then a zone of protection needs to be placed around your home's exterior to keep them out for good. This requires eliminating the nest and applying a protective barrier to your home's exterior by sealing gaps and applying a residual pesticide treatment to its foundation. It's recommended that this be done by a pest control professional. Terminix® can help.