Ants are members of the order Hymenoptera which also includes bees and wasps. Ants are distinguished from most other insects by their lack of wings (except swarmers) and their narrow waist or petiole (the narrow one or two-segmented connection between the thorax and the abdomen). They have prominent eyes and the antennae are elbowed. Some ant species have one or more pairs of spines on the top of their body and stingers at the tip of their abdomen.
At certain times of the year, typically spring and/or fall, some ant colonies produce reproductives, also known as swarmers. The swarmers are the new queens and males and look similar to worker ants except they have two pairs of clear wings which have very few veins. The first pair of wings are almost twice the size of the second pair.
Some ant species have stingers and can inflict stings similar to wasps. The greatest risk to humans when stung by ants is anaphylactic shock, which can be a life threatening event in sensitized individuals. Fire ants are the species most commonly associated with stinging; they can sting multiple times, and when disturbed attack in massive numbers. Their sting is characterized by intense pain, redness, swelling and the formation of a pustule after approximately 24 hours.
Several ant species can cause structural damage. Unlike termites, wood infesting ants do not eat wood, since they are incapable of digesting cellulose. Carpenter ants and, to a lesser extent, acrobat ants will infest wood, foam insulation, and/or structural voids and use these areas as nesting sites. Carpenter ant damage, which can be extensive, occurs more often in the Northwest and Northeast.
Ants feed on various foods, often changing their preferences from spring to fall. They commonly feed on other insects, seeds, and honeydew (a sugary solution produced by plant feeding insects, such as aphids). Once a food source is located worker ants establish a trail using a pheromone (a chemical produced by the ants for communication) which other worker ants follow to the food source.
Ants are considered social insects; they live in colonies which have a caste system of the reproductive queens and sterile workers. Depending on the species a colony may have more than one queen, but the majority of the colony consists of workers. Males are produced during swarming season and serve only to mate with swarming queens. While most new colonies are established in this fashion, some species form colonies by budding, where a portion of workers and one or more queens split from the founding colony.