A supercolony of invasive Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) stretches for 560 miles beneath California, from San Diego to San Francisco. The billions of Argentine ants are unlike other ants in many ways—and they are virtually indestructible. Along with their supercolonies in Europe, Japan, and Australia, L. humile’s global domination is rivaled only by that of human beings. Here’s what you should know about these prolific pests.
1. Argentine ant colonies are ruled by hundreds of queens.
Most ant colonies revolve around a single queen. Growing much larger than the worker drones, she is programmed to mate as quickly as possible, then to leave her nest of origin and establish a new one. In some species, a single queen can lay millions of eggs in a lifetime, producing an army of worker drones and future queens who will go off to build their own nests. But unlike most ants, Argentines are polygynous: Each nest contains multiple queens. In some, they can form up to 30 percent of the population.
2. Argentine ants move their nests frequently.
Nest types vary from ant species to ant species, but those who live in soil commonly dig tunnels and chambers deep into the earth that will protect the colony throughout the life of the queen. L. humile, though, is transient and ever shifting. Argentine ants frequently pack up their eggs and move the entire colony, queen and all, to a new nest, even when there is no apparent threat. Biologist Deborah Gordon told Ars Technica that the ants typically have 20 to 30 shallow nests at any one time, which can be built up in a matter of just weeks.
3. Argentine ants traveled the U.S. before settling down in California.
Argentine ants arrived in the United States from Northern Argentina in the late 19th century, when the first recorded Argentine ant was found in Louisiana in 1891. Researchers believe that the ants hitched a ride to North America in Argentinian shipments of coffee or sugar off-loaded at the Port of New Orleans. From there, they traveled—most likely by train—across the South and into California. Enticed by the Mediterranean climate, one similar to that of its original home in South America, the ants set up shop. By 1907, they’d displaced local native ants and begun their first steps towards total soil domination along 560 miles of California coastline.
4. California’s Argentine ants are more laid-back than their South American cousins.
In side-by-side comparisons of Argentine ants from their South American homeland and California, researchers have found that those from the West Coast are far more mellow than those from Argentina. In studies, it was typical for two ants from different nests to fight when placed in the same vial in Argentina, but in California, ants from different nests rarely fought, even when they were collected from locations several hundred miles apart.
A DNA study of ants from both locations in 2000 revealed a stark difference. In the ants from Argentina, microsatellites—short, uniquely patterned DNA sequences passed down from generation to generation—had more than twice as much variation as the microsatellites of the Californian ants. When two individuals from different nests in California were placed together, they recognized one another as family. The ants from Argentina didn’t, making them more likely to display territorial aggression.
The difference is rooted in the genetic bottleneck the ants encountered on their arrival to the Golden State over a century ago. According to biologist Neil D. Tsutsui, who conducted the DNA study, the ants in California today are all descendants of that founding colony. “It would be as if all of the people in the United States were descended from the Pilgrims who came here in 1620,” he told the Stanford Report in 2004. Instead of competing with one another, generation after generation has worked together to take out native ants and build an immense California colony.
5. Argentine ants protect other insects in exchange for sweet, sweet honeydew.
Argentine ants love to feed on sweet nectar, but flowers and suburban kitchens aren’t the only source of such desirable foodstuffs. Insects that feed on plant sap, like mealybugs, scales, and aphids, naturally excrete sugar-rich liquid “honeydew” from their butts. To secure a steady flow of the sticky-sweet substance, Argentine ants will fight off the predators of their insect chefs, including soldier beetles and midges. They’ll even relocate their honeydew producers to better food sources or microclimates to get the most they can out of their anal secretions.
6. The California Argetine ant supercolony is one-sixth the size of Southern Europe’s.
The California supercolony, which scientists have named the “Californian large,” is only the second-biggest conglomeration of Argentine ants in the world. The biggest colony is found along Southern Europe’s Mediterranean coast, where it stretches 3700 miles from northern Italy to the Atlantic coast of Spain. The ants, introduced around 80 years ago, now number in the billions. Smaller supercolonies also exist in Japan and Australia.
7. Argentine ants are second only to humans in their scale of world domination.
In 2009, researchers discovered that Argentine ants from three of the world’s largest supercolonies (Southern Europe, California, and Japan) are so closely related that they actually form a single mega-colony. The study, led by Eriki Sunamura from the University of Tokyo, found that when placed together, ants from the three supercolonies refused to fight. Instead, they rubbed antennae in greeting the way L. humile does when interacting with genetically-related individuals.
The researchers believe that the Argentine ant mega-colony isn’t just the largest insect colony ever identified; it rivals that of human colonization around the globe. Presenting their findings in the journal Insect Sociaux, they wrote, “the enormous extent of this population is paralleled only by human society.”
8. A mass execution of Argentine ant queens takes place every spring.
Each spring, just before mating season begins, worker ants go on a killing rampage and assassinate 90 percent of their queens. Entomologists aren’t sure exactly why the large-scale execution occurs, but one hypothesis, published in the Journal of Evolutionary Biology in 2001, suggests that it is a “spiteful behavior” to kill the queens that are less related, on average, to the workers.
In their study, researchers from the University of Lausanne hypothesized that Argentine ants are regularly separated from direct family members through free exchange among the nests. Before mating season begins each year, those that are genetically related band together to kill more distantly related queens. Doing so decreases the nest’s genetic diversity and allows it to be rebuilt with a queen who is directly related to the greatest majority of workers.
The study’s results were inconclusive and the question remained unanswered, yet researchers learned something unexpected in the process. Instead of finding genetic diversity among worker ants, those belonging to each nest were actually a homogenous population. Only the queens were genetic outliers with relatively few familial relationships in each nest.
9. Climate change is making Argentine ants more of a nuisance to humans.
Argentine ants thrive in a Mediterranean climate where winters are cool and wet and summers are warm and dry. When conditions are ideal, they largely keep to themselves, but when conditions are drought-like or extremely wet, the ants move indoors in search of more hospitable climes. Experts at survival, Argentine ants can find food or water that’s been left unguarded in just minutes.
With the climate crisis, conditions in California are becoming more extreme. Hot days, no longer relegated just to the summer months, are becoming more numerous and prolonged. Droughts are becoming more frequent. While these changes are unlikely to harm much of the California supercolony, they are likely to drive the residents of urban nests more frequently into people's homes, making the ants a major nuisance for residents from San Diego to San Francisco.
10. Argentine ants are almost impossible to eradicate.
Individual Argentine ants are easy enough to kill, but an Argentine ant colony is a different story. The California colony has no natural predators and, thanks to their high levels of cooperation and massive numbers, L. humile has effectively destroyed possible competitors and disrupted the ecological balance of native species in the process. Insecticides, which are unable to penetrate into the underground nests, aren’t particularly effective. And because the ants can pick up and move their entire nest so quickly, neither are household control measures such as ant bait. After just over a century in California, Argentine ants are now virtually invincible.