Facts about the animal kingdom

How Long Do Ants Live?

Nick A. Romero
By Nick A. Romero, Biologist and environmental educator. Updated: February 16, 2023
How Long Do Ants Live?

Ants belong to the class of insects and are grouped in the family Formicidae. It is a very diverse group, as there are more than 10,000 species, although it is estimated that this number could be much higher. The ants are distributed worldwide, except for some islands and Antarctica. One of their most outstanding characteristics is their complex social behavior, since they are divided into different hierarchical levels and organized according to the functions they perform for the colony. On the other hand, they have a complex communication system that can be visual, olfactory, or tactile. But, how long does an ant live? Have you ever wondered if they are long-lived animals?

In this AnimalWised article, we will examine ants' life cycle and life expectancy.

You may also be interested in: Do Ants Have a Heart to Pump Blood?
  1. How long do queen ants live?
  2. How long do worker ants live?
  3. How long do male ants live?
  4. Life cycle of ants
  5. Does the species of ant affect its life span?

How long do queen ants live?

Ants are characterized by a high and complex social system that includes, among other things, a structure divided into castes that correspond to the castes:

  • Worker ants: sterile females that perform various tasks. Workers are the most abundant ants in the colony. Their job is to build and defend the nest, take care of larvae and pupae, and forage for food.

  • Fertile males: male ants function like walking sperm. Since they have only one genome copy, each of their sperm carries the same DNA as they do. Their only job is essentially to reproduce, and they die soon after mating.

  • Queen ants: these are fertile females that perform the reproductive function within the colony. The queen is larger than the other ants. Anthills may have one or more queens.

All castes are indispensable within the colony. In the case of queens, they are responsible for producing all the offspring that belong to the colony, as well as other queens, workers and drones. This reproductive process also enables the formation of other colonies, as the new queens leave their home colony in due course and establish their own colony.

So how long does a queen ant live? Queen ants live about 20 years, although in captivity cases of up to 30 years have been reported. So they are very long-lived animals, although as always in nature there can be exceptions.

Why do queen ants live so long?

Ant queens can survive for so long because once they establish a colony, they stay there forever. As long as the nest is not invaded by a predator or an environmental agent, the queen ant is not exposed to any danger because it is completely protected.

You may be interested in this other article, where we answer the question of why some ants carry dead insects.

How Long Do Ants Live? - How long do queen ants live?

How long do worker ants live?

Unlike queens, worker ants have a much shorter life span, generally between 1 and 3 years. What is the reason for this big difference? Let us take a look at it.

We have already mentioned that queens never leave the nest, but workers perform various tasks, such as the following:

  • Take care of the new ants while they are in the different stages
  • They go in search of food
  • They defend the colony against intruders

For all these reasons, the workers are exposed to various dangers every time they leave the colony. They are also smaller individuals, and although they can exert considerable force in a group, they are much more fragile individually.

When the queen dies, the other worker ants compete to replace her. Upon winning, the winner automatically becomes the queen and lays eggs for four years, extending her expected lifespan.

After analyzing RNA from the brains, fat body and ovaries of the ants, which are responsible for metabolism and reproduction, the researchers found that the worker ants turned into pseudorheins increased insulin levels to produce eggs. This led to a blockage of one of the insulin signaling pathways responsible for controlling aging.

You may be interested in this other article, where we describe the different types of ants.

How Long Do Ants Live? - How long do worker ants live?

How long do male ants live?

The male ants or drones are the ones that live the least within the various castes we have seen. This is to the extent that the drones live only a few days or weeks. Their function in the colony is purely reproductive.

In terms of size, the males are between the queens and the workers, so they are neither as big as the former nor as small as the latter. Also, like the queens, they have wings, but they shed them before entering their nest.

You may also be interested in this other article, where we go into more detail about how ants are born.

Life cycle of ants

When a queen ant is born, she makes a single mating flight to mate with one or more males. Then she looks for a safe place to establish her future colony, where she will stay all her life.

The queen stores the sperm from the male or males until it is time to use it. When the time comes, she lays the eggs and the life cycle of the ants begins. Interestingly, the queen can lay fertilized as well as unfertilized eggs.

The fertilized eggs hatch into diploid females, that is, with the genetic material of both parents; the unfertilized eggs hatch into haploid males with half the genetic material. When the eggs hatch, the ants begin to develop and undergo a complete metamorphosis consisting of several stages: larva, nymph or pupa, and adult.

The larvae hatch from the egg. They are almost immobile and are fed exclusively by a group of workers who perform this task within the colony. After several molts, the larvae pupate, from which the fully developed ants eventually hatch.

The distinction between the birth of queens and workers is a topic that is still under investigation. It has been proposed that larval nutrition plays a role in this process, but it is still unknown whether genetic influences and environmental factors also play some role.

How Long Do Ants Live? - Life cycle of ants

Does the species of ant affect its life span?

The life span of ants can also vary from one species to another. In spite of the fact that the above figures correspond to the established average, we would like to explain some special cases below:

  • Thief ants (Solenopsis molesta): queens live about a year, workers months, and males days or a few weeks.

  • Leafcutter ant (Atta sexdens): this species has a peculiarity, namely a success rate of only 2.5%, which means that only this percentage of queens manage to establish and build a colony. However, if they are successful, the entire colony can last 10–15 years.

  • Black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus): the queens of this species live more than 10 years, while the males die shortly after mating, so they live only a few weeks. The workers are long-lived, as they can live up to 7 years.

  • Odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile): this species is not as long-lived as others, as the queen lives about a year, as do the workers. The males, on the other hand, live only a few days after mating.

  • Immigrant pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum): the queens live about 10 years, the workers half that time. There is no information on the males, but they certainly live much less than the workers.

  • Black garden ant (Lasius niger): the queens live from 15 to more than 20 years, the workers live a few months and the males a few weeks.

Learn more about ants in the following article, where we list interesting facts about these amazing creatures.

If you want to read similar articles to How Long Do Ants Live?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  • Animal Diversity Web (2020). Available at: https://animaldiversity.org/
  • Lopez-Riquelme, GO; Ramon, F. (2010). The Brave New World of Ants . TYPE. Magazine specialized in chemical-biological sciences. Available at: http://www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1405-888X2010000100004&lng=es&tlng=es.
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How Long Do Ants Live?