The life of an ant starts from an egg. If the egg is fertilised, the progeny will be female diploid; if not, it will be male haploid. Ants develop by complete metamorphosis with the larva stages passing through a pupal stage before emerging as an adult. The larva is largely immobile and is fed and cared for by workers. Food is given to the larvae by trophallaxis, a process in which an ant regurgitates liquid food held in its crop. This is also how adults share food, stored in the “social stomach”. Larvae, especially in the later stages, may also be provided solid food, such as trophic eggs, pieces of prey, and seeds brought by workers.
The larvae grow through a series of four or five moults and enter the pupal stage. The pupa has the appendages free and not fused to the body as in a butterfly pupa. The differentiation into queens and workers (which are both female), and different castes of workers, is influenced in some species by the nutrition the larvae obtain. Genetic influences and the control of gene expression by the developmental environment are complex and the determination of caste continues to be a subject of research. Winged male ants, called drones, emerge from pupae along with the usually winged breeding females. Some species, such as army ants, have wingless queens. Larvae and pupae need to be kept at fairly constant temperatures to ensure proper development, and so often, are moved around among the various brood chambers within the colony.
A new ergate spends the first few days of its adult life caring for the queen and young. She then graduates to digging and other nest work, and later to defending the nest and foraging. These changes are sometimes fairly sudden, and define what are called temporal castes. An explanation for the sequence is suggested by the high casualties involved in foraging, making it an acceptable risk only for ants who are older and are likely to die soon of natural causes.
Ant colonies can be long-lived. The queens can live for up to 30 years, and workers live from 1 to 3 years. Males, however, are more transitory, being quite short-lived and surviving for only a few weeks. Ant queens are estimated to live 100 times as long as solitary insects of a similar size.
Ants are active all year long in the tropics, but, in cooler regions, they survive the winter in a state of dormancy known as hibernation. The forms of inactivity are varied and some temperate species have larvae going into the inactive state (diapause), while in others, the adults alone pass the winter in a state of reduced activity.
Some ant species are considered as pests, primarily those that occur in human habitations, where their presence is often problematic. For example, the presence of ants would be undesirable in sterile places such as hospitals or kitchens. Some species or genera commonly categorized as pests include the Argentine ant, pavement ant, yellow crazy ant, banded sugar ant, Pharaoh ant, carpenter ants, odorous house ant, red imported fire ant, and European fire ant. Some ants will raid stored food, others may damage indoor structures, some can damage agricultural crops directly (or by aiding sucking pests), and some will sting or bite. The adaptive nature of ant colonies make it nearly impossible to eliminate entire colonies and most pest management practices aim to control local populations and tend to be temporary solutions. Ant populations are managed by a combination of approaches that make use of chemical, biological and physical methods. Chemical methods include the use of insecticidal bait which is gathered by ants as food and brought back to the nest where the poison is inadvertently spread to other colony members through trophallaxis. Management is based on the species and techniques can vary according to the location and circumstance.