Why Ants Have Queens And How Many Are In A Nest (More Than You Think!)

by | Ants, Insects

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If you’ve got ants in your yard or home, you might be curious to know if these ants have a queen. Well,

Each ant colony has at least one queen that usually starts the nest, but most colonies have more than one queen, especially as the colony grows. For example, a pavement ant queen can start a colony and lay all the eggs ever needed, but sometimes the colony gets two or more queens as it expands.

Queens are not in charge of the nest and do not tell the other ants what to do. But queens are essential because they are the only ants that can lay eggs. These eggs hatch and grow into female workers that run the nest, or male and female swarmers that fly off to start new nests.

So, queen ants are born as flying ants called swarmers.

How flying ant queens start a nest

Flying ant females mating with male flying ants before starting new nests as queens

In the early stages of an ant colony, the queen lays eggs that hatch into female worker ants. These workers do all the work around the nest – finding food or farming it for all the ants in the nest, taking care of the young, cleaning the nest, and taking care of the queen so she can carry on laying eggs each day.

As the ant colony matures and gets bigger, the queen purposefully lays some eggs that hatch and develop into male and female ants with wings.

In late spring or early summer, these flying ants (swarmers) leave the nest for their first and only flight.

There is no single flying ant day that all flying ants swarm. It has to do more with the season, the right weather conditions, and what part of the country they live in – flying ants in cities tend to fly earlier than those in the countryside because cities are warmer.   

Flying ants leave the nest when:

  • Winds are low, so they don’t get blown all over the place
  • There’s sunlight and warmth, so they can see where they are going and control their body temperature with the sun
  • There have been a few days of rain, so it’s humid and the ground is wet. This makes the soil easy for the ants to dig into and build nests

Flying ant females mate with males from other nests, to avoid inbreeding.

A female stores sperm in a pouch on her abdomen and uses the sperm to control the gender of all the eggs she lays for the rest of her life. The eggs she fertilizes with the sperm are born female, while males hatch from unfertilized eggs.

The male flying ants die soon after mating.

The females drop to the ground, to look for soft soil to dig into. Here they start their own nest, lay eggs that hatch into female workers, and officially become the queen of an ant nest.

Ant budding: When queens leave their nest to start a new one

Worker ant carrying a young ant in her mouth to a new nesting site for ant budding

Not all ant nests are started by queens with wings.

Sometimes some of the ants in a colony leave the nest to start a new nest elsewhere, and sometimes all of the ants move together. Experts aren’t sure why ants do this.

Leaving the nest to start a new nest is called “ant budding”, and ant budding can happen in one of three ways:

  • A queen ant and some of her workers leave an ant colony to start a new nest somewhere else
  • Several queens leave the nest with workers to start many new colonies wherever they find a good place to build a nest, which could be around your yard, in your potted plants, or in your house
  • Worker ants carry young ants, with at least one young queen, to a new nesting site. The workers raise the young larvae and start their own budded colony

Ants that go out to build budded colonies are: Argentine ants, carpenter ants, some types of fire ants or red ants, ghost ants, and pharaoh ants.

These ants can be very difficult to control as they spread very quickly throughout the year by budding, and they don’t have to wait for annual swarmers to start new colonies for them.

The number of queens in an ant colony

Every ant colony has at least one queen that the workers take care of

Every ant colony needs a queen that lays eggs. The queen continues to lay eggs and grow the ant colony over her lifetime, which is usually 10 to 15 years.

Some ant species are happy with only one queen, and these are single queen colonies. Other ant species have many egg-laying queens, and so they are multi-queen colonies.

Sometimes, a species of ant can be single queen or multi-queen, depending on the colony’s maturity, where the colony is located (larger areas allow the ants to branch out and have more queens), if the colony joins other colonies, and if there are the right environmental conditions in the nest.

Having more than one queen makes it difficult to kill off a colony that’s nesting in your house or yard, because if you don’t kill all the queens the ants will keep on reproducing and thriving. Click here to find out how to kill all the queens in an ant colony.

Below is a table with a list of common ant types and whether they tend to prefer having a single queen, multiple queens, or if it’s up to the colony (can be single or multi-queen):

Army ants Single queen
Argentine ants Multi-queen
Carpenter ants Single queen
Crazy ants    Multi-queen
Fire antsSingle queen or Multi-queen
Ghost ants    Multi-queen
Leafcutter ants       Multi-queen
Odorous ants / sugar ants / stink ants / coconut ants Multi-queen
Pavement ants / sugar antsSingle queen or Multi-queen
Pharaoh ants          Multi-queen
Red ants / thatching ants / field ants / wood ants   Single queen or Multi-queen
Thief ants / grease ants   Single queen or Multi-queen
© Backyard Pests

Ant colonies often have multiple queens because it’s better for the colony. Multi-queen colonies have three big advantages over single queen colonies:

  • The colony grows faster, as more queens means that more eggs are laid each day
  • If one queen ant dies, the colony can continue without much disruption as there are other queen ants laying eggs
  • If one queen stops laying eggs for whatever reason, the workers can kill her and let the remaining queens continue to lay eggs for the colony

I'm Monique. I love gardening and spending time in my backyard growing things. Here's where I share what I know about backyard pests and what to do about them, so you can enjoy your yard too.

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Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.


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