text Dr Christian Peeters and Dr Decha Wiwatwitaya

Clever little thing: the Oecophylla

Weaver ANTS
The marvellous architects
Ants are the world’s most ecologically important insects, both in terms of biomass and diversity of ecosystem services. About 15,000 species inhabit almost all terrestrial habitats, including deserts and high mountains. Ants are social insects characterised by a highly sophisticated division of labour: different individuals carry out different functions. Among social insects, weaver ants (Oecophylla) are one of the great success stories. There are just two species in the genus Oecophylla, but they are ecologically dominant in the forests of three continents. O. longinoda occurs across Africa while O. smaragdina is found in Asia and northern Australia. Their success results mostly from the ability to build nests using living leaves that are stitched together with silk. Many other ant species live in trees, but they are restricted to nesting in preformed cavities in live or dead wood, which are fixed volumes. In sharp contrast, Oecophylla can enlarge their nests readily, and they can also build additional ones close by. This means that one colony is distributed in several nests (this behaviour is called “polydomy” and is typical of several other ants). This construction ability gives Oecophylla a competitive edge over other species. Indeed, some colonies can include hundreds of separate nests on different trees.

Fact File

Genus: Oecophylla Species: Smaragdina Alternative names: Kerengga
Distinguishing features: The weaver ants do not have a stinger, but inflict a painful bite secreted by irritating chemicals in their abdomen. They are best known for their remarkable nest-constructing abilities. With immaculate coordination, they create very strong ant bridges by linking legs to pull leaves into desired tent-like positions. Country of Origin: China Year of discovery: 304 A.D.   Distribution: Australia, India, Taiwan, and across Southeast Asia Diet: They mainly farm scale bugs for their honeydew and feed on small insects Social behaviour: Weaver ants are often exploited by other elements of nature. Plants such as the Sea Hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliceaus) take to secreting nectar in their leaves to attract these ants so as to protect it from leaf-eaters. Their vicious bite also deters other larger herbivores.  A single established colony may be spread out over several nests which may even span several trees. Reproduction: Colony reproduction in these ants typically occurs through the foundation of a new nest by a single mated queen (haplometrosis), but sometimes involves several cooperating queens (pleometrosis). The queen usually resides in one nest while her eggs are distributed to the others. Status (IUCN List): Not evaluated

Weaver ant

Let’s take a quick look at family life before we focus on some of the adaptations that help Oecophylla workers to be highly efficient foragers. Colonies are started by one or more queens without any help from the workers. This beginning is particularly risky in Oecophylla because founding queens cannot build a nest – silk is not yet available as there are not enough larvae. Hence, queens shelter under leaves or use their own bodies to protect the developing larvae. Mortality is reduced because they do not need to go out and look for food: they accumulated large

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Alex Wild/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

WILD Weaver ants

reserves of fat and proteins before leaving their natal colony. Ant queens fly only one day in their lives, when they are young, after which the wings are shed and the considerable wing muscles are broken down to be reused as amino acids for the developing larvae. After several weeks, the first workers metamorphose into adults and then take over all the maintenance activities. New food can now be brought into the nest, and it rapidly grows in size. In colonies that were started by more than one queen, the workers eliminate all but one. The surviving queen will monopolise egg laying for the next 10 to 15 years. Two kinds of workers are produced in Oecophylla colonies: minors and majors are completely different in size, and they carry out different functions. Minor workers stay inside the nests and care for the queen’s brood, while major workers forage outside. Oecophylla ants are both carnivores and herbivores: insects are hunted by workers that operate either alone or in groups. Moreover, ants obtain liquid food from aphids and scale insects; these have highly specialised mouthparts to suck plant sap from living tissues. They need to process large quantities of sap to obtain enough proteins, and the sweet “honeydew” they excrete is still very nutritive. Ants are fond of honeydew, which enables them to feed on

plants without eating the leaves. In return, the ants protect sap-feeding insects from their enemies, and move them to young shoots of the plants. Besides having keen vision, weaver ants also use a complex chemical language that makes it possible to coordinate their activities outside the nest. For example, whenever a forager locates a large dying insect, she can release pheromones that will attract nest mates in the vicinity. Several workers can then work as a team to subdue prey or carry it back to their nest. Oecophylla ants are aggressive and do not tolerate other ants in their territory. How do Oecophylla build their nests? This very complex sequence of behaviours requires a high level of coordination. First, a suitable clump of leaves is identified by one or more older experienced individuals. Next, many workers assemble and form a living chain that is used to bring adjacent leaves closer to each other. Once the gap between leaf edges has been reduced to a minimum, the chains remain in position and other workers bring out older larvae that will be used as shuttles. They walk to and fro across the gaps while holding the larvae in their mandibles. In other ant species, larvae use silk to build a cocoon that is needed during metamorphosis. In Oecophylla, cocoons

did you know?
Weaver ants form the most elaborate communicative organisation in the insect world. They form complex organisations through the use of simple individual intelligence to create an elaborate social structure. These master architects and engineers are capable of building nests and bridges to acquire food resources, and their creations represent the most complex such systems reported in ants. Weaver ants recognise new terrain by means of both visual and olfactory cues, with the latter being the more effective. When major workers cannot cross a gap in the terrain by walking, they attempt to traverse the gap by building bridges with their bodies. Workers first crowd together at the edge of the gap. They are attracted to the bridge site visually; upon arriving at the closest site the workers stretch their bodies toward the other side of the gap, often holding this posture rigidly for periods of minutes. Other workers then clamber out over the bodies of their nest mates, and a living bridge begins to take shape. When a bridge is constructed and some of the ants are able to traverse the bridge, the successful explorers then return to the nest while laying odour trails from their rectal glands. Such chemical recruitment only occurs after workers have crossed the bridge and examine the object on the other side. Odour trails are then laid all over the surface of the object and even over the bodies of the nest mates forming the living bridge. The emergence of complex organisation among weaver ants, from simple biological intelligence, provides a model for social communication processes in organisations and artificial intelligence. The phenomenon has been extensively modelled and studied in diverse disciplines of the generative sciences. Weaver ants’ emergent organisation and eating behaviour is also used directly in controlling pests by introducing them onto orchard trees, where they build nests and act as a natural biological pest control. The ability of simple-minded ants to co-ordinate on such complex tasks is being studied for applications in robotics, with a view to building simple, cheap robots that could carry out complex tasks. Studies of the building behaviour of Oecophylla promise to contribute significantly to our understanding of problem solving in complex systems and the production of collective systems through self-assembly.
– Dr Yash Paul Sharma of the Department of Zoology and Environmental Sciences, Punjabi University

Visuals Unlimited, Inc./Solvin Zankl

Weaver ants’ unique nests are built by weaving together leaves using larval silk. Note the compound eyes, antennae and mouthparts

These master architects and engineers are capable of building nests and bridges to acquire food resources, and their creations represent the most complex such systems reported in ants.
have been eliminated (the pupae are naked), but the silk is used instead as a construction material. Old colonies of Oecophylla can consist of hundred thousands of workers, all produced by the single queen. What are the advantages of growing so large? Having separate nests all over the canopy of trees means that ants can monopolise extensive territories. They can gather large quantities of food that are channelled into their queen’s reproduction. Every day she lays hundreds of eggs, which are carried to the other nests to be fed as larvae and develop into adult workers. Many ant species are extremely limited in their geographical distribution and have very narrow dietary requirements. Other species occur over a wider area and can use a variety of food. ag

Splash News/Corbis

Dr Christian Peeters is a research professor with the French National Science Research Agency (CNRS). He is based in the Laboratory Ecology & Evolution (University Pierre et Marie Curie) in Paris. He studies the behaviour of tropical ants on all continents, particularly Asia and Australia. ecologie.snv.jussieu.fr/socialite/equipe.html Dr Decha Wiwatwitaya isAssociate Professor at Kasetsart University in Bangkok. He is Curator of the Ant Museum, a large collection of ants from Thailand. He studies sustainable management of Oecophylla in SE Asia.

Weaver ants link themselves together over a gap in a wall to create a living bridge

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