How Does an Ant Colony Start?

Here I describe just how an ant colony starts. There are in fact several methods of colony creation. I describe how a colony of Lasius niger ants is created. I include a brief description of other methods used by British ants.

The mating flights

How does an ant colony start? Every summer, usually around late June to early August in the UK. Lasius niger ants are seen swarming outside nests, and eventually taking to the air in great clouds. These are the synchronised annual mating flights of Lasius niger.

It is common for there to be two or even three separate mating flights during the summer. It seems some colonies do not release all their winged members at the same time. Perhaps the later ones are still in development when the first flying ants emerge. Regardless of that slight exception, the mating flights of ants are generally a synchronised event within species and neighbourhoods.

The flying ants fly from their parent nest to look for a mate. The flying ants follow the thermal currents, in the hope of finding themselves a mate. The queens and males may mate in the air with the male perched on top of the queen, or the ants may mate on the ground. The queen, once mated, will fly off to find a suitable nesting site, whilst the male survives for perhaps a day or two before curling up and dying. The male has fulfilled his one role in life. The queen may go on to mate with several more males before finding a nesting site and starting an ant colony.

Finding a suitable nest site

The queen lands and uses her middle and hind legs to “unhook” her 2 pairs of wings, which she discards on the ground. The wings are of no use anymore, she will never fly again. If the queen does not remove her wings, they will soon break off, or be removed by the workers. I see many of these wingless queens running around, as the mating flights occur. Occasionally, I collect some of these queens for future captive colonies. 

The queen looks for a suitable nesting site, and once found, she urgently digs herself a small burrow. She seals herself within and, unless forced to do so, will never emerge into the sunlight again. From this point onward her life is one of total darkness.

The long lonely wait of starting an ant colony

The queen may lay eggs immediately, or she may wait until the spring. However, if she lays her eggs soon after mating, and the weather stays mild, then the eggs will hatch within 8-10 weeks. Remember, we are discussing Lasius niger here; other species may take less or more time to develop their brood.

Usually, at least as far as Lasius niger are concerned, the queen creates this new nest completely on her own. However, it has been known for Lasius niger queens to come together and cooperate in starting a new ant colony.

Lasius niger are monogyne, meaning that each colony will only tolerate one parent queen. If more than one Lasius niger queen raise brood together, they fight to the death once the first workers have hatched. Eventually only one queen remains victorious.

Whilst the Lasius niger queen awaits the emergence of her first workers, she remains in her burrow. She forages neither for food or water. However, the queen eats a few of the eggs she has laid. The broken down wing muscles provide her with the nutrients needed for egg production.

The new ant colony - the queen's first workers

The first workers emerge after 8 to 10 weeks. These first generation ants are small compared to the later generations. The workers expand the nest, and tend to the queen and brood. Eventually the workers remove the seal and forage above ground for food. This is a critical time for the new colony. The queen has lost up to 50% of her body weight by this stage. Therefore the workers need to gather food quickly in order to feed the near starved queen. The food provides nourishment to the queen, which is needed to create more eggs. The queen ceases all functions from now on, and subsequently becomes a mere egg laying machine.  The queen ant is not a queen in the monarchy sense.  She does not rule or take charge.  The queen lays eggs. That is it, though she is arguably the most important ant in the colony.

As future generations of ants are produced, they will be bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than their older sisters. After a year or so of the queen starting an ant colony, an exponential rate in growth occurs, where the population rises dramatically. Once the colony is well established, which can take a couple of years or more, the queen lays eggs that will turn into winged males. Later on, when the colony resources are plentiful, large winged queens will appear, and the whole cycle is started again.

Other methods used when starting an ant colony

Here I explain other methods ants use when creating a new colony. Giving an answer to the question, how does an ant colony start is quite complex. There are several other methods that ants use when starting an ant colony.  Queens of some of the polygyne (more than one parent queen) species will come together to create a new nest. Myrmica rubra continue with several queens after the first batch of workers are eclosed. They will continue to function as a single colony with each queen contributing to the egg production of the colony.

The budding and parasite methods

“Budding” is another method in which new ant colonies are created. Formica rufa create new colonies in this way. These ants can have over one hundred egg laying queens in each colony, and once a colony becomes large enough, one of more of these queens may leave the nest. She can take hundreds, or thousands of workers and brood with her. The ants create a new colony, usually not far from the parent nest.  Though not found in the UK, some army ants start new colonies with this method.

Parasitism is a method used by newly mated queens of the species Formica sanguinea, the largest of the native British ants. The sanguinea queen forces her way into the nest of a smaller species, such as Formica fusca and snatch some of the brood. She creates a sub-cell within the nest and defend it against the colony’s workers or queens. The queen may kill the parent queen herself, or she may wait until the brood she has snatched emerge as worker ants. They will associate themselves with the sanguinea queen, and kill the original queen themselves.

Examples of ant species using Parasitism

Lasius umbratus queens use Lasius niger nests when starting an ant colony. These queens locate a a Lasius niger nest, hide themselves nearby, and wait for an unsuspecting worker from that nest to pass by. The umbratus queen grabs the worker, kills it, and uses its body to cover herself with its own colony scent. You can sometimes see dark-coloured newly mated queens walking about with a dead worker ant in their jaws shortly after the mating flights. This is quite likely to be a Lasius umbratus queen preparing herself for her nefarious mission.

The queen enters the Lasius niger colony, acting submissive to any niger workers she meets, in order to avoid combat. The Lasius niger workers eventually accept the umbratus queen as their own. The parent niger queen is the killed. It is worthy to note that the Lasius umbratus queen is not always successful in this adventure of hers.  In fact, the statistics are against her.  Lasius umbratus queens fail more than they succeed. Foraging workers kill Lasius umratus queens in their attempts, more often than not. I have a captive colony of this species

Examples of ant species using Parasitism - continued

Lasius fuliginosus queens raid the nests of Lasius umbratus, incorporating themselves into the hustle and bustle of the host colony, usurping the resident queen. The umbratus workers eventually adopt the invading fuliginosus queen as their own.  So, a colony can start as Lasius niger, be infiltrated by Lasius umbratus, which in turn may become Lasius fuliginosus.

Formica sanguinea cannot start a new colony on their own. Therefore, the queen finds, and forces her way into, a Formica fusca nest.  She creates herself a little burrow within that colony. The queen lays her own eggs, defending them vigorously from the host workers. When her own workers hatch, they seek out and kill the host queen, though the sanguinea queen may kill her herself. Once the fusca queen is dead remainder of the fusca colony accept her as queen.

Conclusion

As you can see there is more to starting an ant colony than a queen ant simply digging a hole in the ground.  I find it fascinating. It is a complex thing with many inherent dangers for the queen and her new workers. I hope I have been able to answer your question of how does an ant colony start.

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My current ant farms as of October 2019