Ants are amazing. Everyone knows this. But even with an innate sense of wonder at the workings of such tiny beings, mankind is rife with misconceptions about this omnipresent family of fascinating species. Here are what I consider to be the top three misconceptions about ants:
1. Fire ant bites are very painful
This is probably the most consistent mistake I come across in conversation and in print. Many people believe that the sharp, chemical-induced pain delivered by some species of ants, like fire ants, originates from a bite. This faulty belief likely derives from the fact that many species do in fact bite, as an anchor for more effective stinging. Alex Wild has this great image of such a fire ant attack:
For an example of this misconception in action, see this confused New York Times information sheet on fire ants that fails to discriminate between “bite” and “sting”. I should note that you often can feel something from an ant bite, especially from larger species, but this is nothing more than a slight pressure or mildly painful pinch.
2. Some species are special “winged ants”
During the summer, you may find your place of abode momentarily invaded by a horde of winged ants. When I was younger, I thought that these were a special species of ants with wings, and I’ve found that this belief is not unique to my younger self. In actuality, nearly every ant species produces winged individuals at some point during the year, as “winged ants” are members of the reproductive caste (queens or males). During the nuptial flight, males and queens (or, according to some, “princesses”) will emerge, generating both new nests for the species and fresh misconceptions for people.
3. A worker ant is a “he”
Ants are similar to humans in so many ways, that I think this mistake is understandable. Many people assume that ant workers include both males and females, and will therefore resort to “he” when referring to an ant they encounter. However, all ant workers – without exception, to my knowledge – are female. Such sex uniformity is preserved via the haplodiploid system employed by most ants, where the unfertilized eggs the queen lays become reproductive males (among the “winged ants” addressed above), and the fertilized eggs become females (either winged queens or unwinged workers).
So, in summary: Sting, not bite. Reproductives, not species. She, not he.