Is it a queen?

Is it a queen? No really, is it? You’ve found what you believe is an ant queen, but only keep her if you know that she is a queen. It is unkind to keep a worker whose destiny was to live and die for her mother, not to be cooped up in a test-tube on gel ant farm. Never get a gel ant farm, these mold and do not give the ants adequate nutrition.

Thorax. If you are unsure, look at the way their body is built. A queen has a larger thorax than a worker, for holding fats and where the wing muscles were housed. No wait, more than that – she simply is larger than a worker. You can tell in the pictures below by Alex Wild (see Image Use for permissions):

Semi Claustral Queen and Worker
Although the Gnamptogenys mordax queen on the queen on the left looks to be a worker, you can tell she is a queen due to her huge thorax.
Worker Diagram
Note the small thorax
Queen Diagram
Note the large thorax.

Although I don’t know, the Gnamptogenys mordax queen looks to be semi-claustral, due to her smaller size, so it may not be initially so obvious that she is a queen without the comparison with the worker and the excellent macro photography. So what are the other ways to find out?

Behavior. Queens and workers have drastically different behaviors. Workers are often fast, and go towards food, walking often in long superhighway towards food, but this is not a certain way of telling. Many ants species hunt alone, and young colonies that are in their first year may not have enough workers to form a visible trail.

Season. Most species do their nuptial flights in summer, so if it is the middle of winter, chances are all the ants are hibernating, and in autumn they are wrapping up for the year, and in spring they just got out of hibernation.

On the other hand, queens are slow and clumsy. If you see the flying (which can be a sign that they have not mated yet) they are lumber, big, and unstealthy. When on the ground, you will see them investigating cracks and crevices, which may be potential places to found a colony. This can be problematic when trying to capture them, so keep that in mind. When I caught my Tetramorium queen this was definitely problematic. She burrowed down into a hole by a dandelion; I nearly lost her!

Behavior when captured. Workers may be a bit more frantic when captured. I saw what I believed was a Formica worker once of coloration I never saw before, with some red, but definitely mot the Western Thatching Ant, another Formica species. I kept her in a test-tube for a few minutes to see and photograph, and she was quite frantic, eagerly cleaning her antennae. My queen was quite relaxed after being caught.

Wings. Any ant that has wings is a reproductive, either a virgin queen or a male (drone.) How can you tell the difference between a queen and a drone? Queens are way bigger: they need to have masses of fat reserves, ovaries, and a good physiology to live a happy and long life. In the photo below from AntARK you can see the sheer size difference:

Ant Queen Mating
Ant queen mating. Photo by Bert Heymans on Flickr.

Warning. If your queen has wings, this is not a guarantee of fertility, especially if you have caught her in the vicinity of her nest. When a queen mates, she mates with one to several drones before landing on the ground and taking off her wings. Still, sometimes the queens keep their wings on throughout the founding stage of the colony.

My advice: Keep her if she is away from her nest and there are not too many other winged ants in the area, release her if otherwise, she probably hasn’t mated yet.

I hope this helps give you some insight into if your ant is a queen or not. If she is, congratulations! You are on the way to having a colony, just like I am, but don’t consider me an expert. Most of this article is from background research, not personal experience. If not a queen, or she has been captured in the immediate area of her nest – release her about where you found her, and keep looking! The summer isn’t over yet!!

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