As some say, male ants are essentially just flying sperm, and as harsh as that may sound, that is in fact, what they are. They’re produced for one sole purpose, that is to mate with virgin queens to allow them to start new colonies.
In this article, we’ll look further into the male ant’s role in the colony and in ant reproduction. Apart from that we’ll also discuss what happens to them after they’ve fulfilled their primary purpose.
Most ants reproduce sexually. Meaning, reproduction typically involves mating and the coming of genetic material from two parents to produce offspring. For ants, these would be the alates which include winged virgin queens and males called drones.
At certain times of the year, usually during spring and early summer, these alates emerge from their nests to participate in what’s called a nuptial flight. In this nuptial flight, they fly a considerable distance to swarm and breed with other reproductive ants.
There, queens mate with multiple drones until their spermatheca are filled. Afterwards, they lose their wings as they head towards a suitable nesting site where they’ll seal themselves off to safety and lay eggs to establish a new colony.
As for the drones, they too lose their wings and unfortunately their lives. Having fulfilled their purpose as flying sperm, these males soon die after mating.
Why Do Male Ants Die After Mating?
For male ants copulation is both a victory and a death sentence. While they do get to pass on their genetic material to the next generation of ants, they end up losing their lives for it.
One reason for this is because their internal genitalia literally explodes into the queen’s genital chamber as they mate vigorously.
There’s also the fact that male ants undergo physiological changes as they prepare to mate. After spermatogenesis, their fat reserves would be mostly used up and their bodies would have already begun to degenerate. For instance, the deterioration of their midguts and the oenocytes in their bodies end up affecting their ability to process food, store lipids, and metabolize.
In contrast, queens retain large and healthy bodies suited for longevity.
All in all, the costs of reproduction are simply too high for male ants to bear and given that they don’t actively contribute to the colony, they receive less care and thus, have to bear these costs alone. Because of this, their lifespans are severely reduced.
What If They Did Live?
Even if they did live after mating, their future with the colony remains unclear, that is if the colony even welcomes them back.
Unlike other animals, male ants can only produce a limited amount of sperm, of which they would have most likely used up after the nuptial flight. So given that they exist solely to mate with queens, their lack of sperm renders them useless. They’ll just end up as a liability to the colony and would most likely be discarded or shunned.
What Do Male Ants Look Like?
Male ants are smaller than queens but are also slightly bigger than workers. They have smaller heads, bigger eyes, straighter antennae, and due to their wings, muscular thoraxes similar to queens.
How Are Male Ants Produced?
Ants follow a haploidiploid sex-determination system wherein males are haploid (have one set of chromosomes) and females a diploid (have two sets of chromosomes). As such, male ants are produced by queens through unfertilized eggs.
Summary: What Do Male Ants Do?
Male ants are single-use sperm missiles with one sole goal of mating and inseminating virgin queens which would go on to establish new colonies. These winged males are produced alongside virgin queens when a mature colony is ready to expand. They then participate in a nuptial flight where they meet with other reproductive ants and breed.
Afterwards, these male ants die as their internal genitalia explode and due to the costs of reproduction, hence the term single-use.