Weaver ant

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Weaver ant
Temporal range: 47–0  Ma
Eocene – Recent
Red Weaver Ant, Oecophylla smaragdina.jpg
Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) major worker (India).
Red Weaver Ant, Oecophylla longinoda.jpg
Weaver ant (Oecophylla longinoda) major worker (Tanzania)
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Subfamily: Formicinae
Tribe: Oecophyllini
Emery, 1895
Genus: Oecophylla
Smith, 1860
Type species
Formica virescens (junior synonym of Oecophylla smaragdina)
Diversity [1]
2 extant species
13 extinct species
Oecophylla range map.png
Oecophylla range map.
Oecophylla longinoda in blue, Oecophylla smaragdina in red. [2]

Weaver ants or green ants (genus Oecophylla) are eusocial insects of the family Formicidae (order Hymenoptera). Weaver ants live in trees (they are obligately arboreal) and are known for their unique nest building behaviour where workers construct nests by weaving together leaves using larval silk. [3] Colonies can be extremely large consisting of more than a hundred nests spanning numerous trees and containing more than half a million workers. Like many other ant species, weaver ants prey on small insects and supplement their diet with carbohydrate-rich honeydew excreted by small insects (Hemiptera). Weaver ant workers exhibit a clear bimodal size distribution, with almost no overlap between the size of the minor and major workers. [4] [5] The major workers are approximately 8–10 mm (0.31–0.39 in) in length and the minors approximately half the length of the majors. Major workers forage, defend, maintain, and expand the colony whereas minor workers tend to stay within the nests where they care for the brood and 'milk' scale insects in or close to the nests.


Dead weaver ant queen carried by a worker ant Weaver ant queen 4.jpg
Dead weaver ant queen carried by a worker ant

Weaver ants vary in color from reddish to yellowish brown dependent on the species. Oecophylla smaragdina found in Australia often have bright green gasters. Weaver ants are highly territorial and workers aggressively defend their territories against intruders. Because they prey on insects harmful to their host trees, weaver ants are sometime used by indigenous farmers, particularly in southeast Asia, as natural biocontrol agents against agricultural pests. Although weaver ants lack a functional sting they can inflict painful bites and often spray formic acid [6] [7] directly at the bite wound resulting in intense discomfort.


Extant species:

Extinct species:


Liquid food exchange (trophallaxis) in O. smaragdina SSL12022p.jpg
Liquid food exchange (trophallaxis) in O. smaragdina

The weaver ants belong to the ant genus Oecophylla (subfamily Formicinae) which contains two closely related living species: O. longinoda and O. smaragdina. [1] They are provisionally placed in a tribe of their own, Oecophyllini. The weaver ant genus Oecophylla is relatively old, and 15 fossil species have been found from the Eocene to Miocene deposits. [2] [8] Three other genera of weaving ants, Polyrhachis , Camponotus and Dendromyrmex , [9] also use larval silk in nest construction, but the construction and architecture of their nests are simpler than those of Oecophylla. [10]

Two O. smaragdina transferring food to their colony Two weaver ants.JPG
Two O. smaragdina transferring food to their colony

The common features of the genus include an elongated first funicular segment, presence of propodeal lobes, helcium at midheight of abdominal segment 3 and gaster capable of reflexion over the mesosoma. Males have vestigial pretarsal claws. [11]

Distribution and habitat

O. longinoda is distributed in the Afrotropics and O. smaragdina from India and Sri Lanka in southern Asia, through southeastern Asia to northern Australia and Melanesia. [12] In Australia, Oecophylla smaragdina is found in the tropical coastal areas as far south as Broome in Western Australia and across the coastal tropics of the Northern Territory down to Yeppoon in Queensland. [13]

Colony ontogeny and social organization

Weaver ants collaborating to pull nest leaves together AntsStitchingLeave.jpg
Weaver ants collaborating to pull nest leaves together

Weaver ant colonies are founded by one or more mated females (queens). [14] A queen lays her first clutch of eggs on a leaf and protects and feeds the larvae until they develop into mature workers. The workers then construct leaf nests and help rear new brood laid by the queen. As the number of workers increases, more nests are constructed and colony productivity and growth increase significantly. Workers perform tasks that are essential to colony survival, including foraging, nest construction, and colony defense. The exchange of information and modulation of worker behaviour that occur during worker-worker interactions are facilitated by the use of chemical and tactile communication signals. These signals are used primarily in the contexts of foraging and colony defense. Successful foragers lay down pheromone trails that help recruit other workers to new food sources. Pheromone trails are also used by patrollers to recruit workers against territorial intruders. Along with chemical signals, workers also use tactile communication signals such as attenation and body shaking to stimulate activity in signal recipients. Multimodal communication in Oecophylla weaver ants importantly contributes to colony self-organization. [15] [16] Like many other ant species, Oecophylla workers exhibit social carrying behavior as part of the recruitment process, in which one worker will carry another worker in its mandibles and transport it to a location requiring attention.[ citation needed ]

Nest building behaviour

Weaver ant nest on a mango tree Weaverantnest05268.jpg
Weaver ant nest on a mango tree

Oecophylla weaver ants are known for their cooperative behaviour used in nest construction. Possibly the first description of weaver ant's nest building behaviour was made by the English naturalist Joseph Banks, who took part in Captain James Cook's voyage to Australia in 1768. An excerpt from Joseph Banks' Journal (cited in Hölldobler and Wilson 1990) is included below:

The ants...one green as a leaf, and living upon trees, where it built a nest, in size between that of a man's head and his fist, by bending the leaves together, and gluing them with whitish paperish substances which held them firmly together. In doing this their management was most curious: they bend down four leaves broader than a man's hand, and place them in such a direction as they choose. This requires a much larger force than these animals seem capable of; many thousands indeed are employed in the joint work. I have seen as many as could stand by one another, holding down such a leaf, each drawing down with all his might, while others within were employed to fasten the glue. How they had bent it down I had not the opportunity of seeing, but it was held down by main strength, I easily proved by disturbing a part of them, on which the leaf bursting from the rest, returned to its natural situation, and I had an opportunity of trying with my finger the strength of these little animals must have used to get it down. [10]

The weaver ant's ability to build capacious nests from living leaves has undeniably contributed to their ecological success. The first phase in nest construction involves workers surveying potential nesting leaves by pulling on the edges with their mandibles. When a few ants have successfully bent a leaf onto itself or drawn its edge toward another, other workers nearby join the effort. The probability of a worker joining the concerted effort is dependent on the size of the group, with workers showing a higher probability of joining when group size is large. [17] When the span between two leaves is beyond the reach of a single ant, workers form chains with their bodies by grasping one another's petiole (waist). Multiple intricate chains working in unison are often used to ratchet together large leaves during nest construction. Once the edges of the leaves are drawn together, other workers retrieve larvae from existing nests using their mandibles. Upon reaching a seam to be joined, these workers tap the head of the clutched larvae, which causes them to excrete silk. They can only produce so much silk, so the larva will have to pupate without a cocoon. The workers then maneuver between the leaves in a highly coordinated fashion to bind them together. [10] Weaver ant's nests are usually elliptical in shape and range in size from a single small leaf folded and bound onto itself to large nests consisting of many leaves and measure over half a meter in length. The time required to construct a nest varies depending on leaf type and eventual size, but often a large nest can be built in significantly less than 24 hours. Although weaver ant's nests are strong and impermeable to water, new nests are continually being built by workers in large colonies to replace old dying nests and those damaged by storms. [18]

Relationship with humans

In agriculture

O. smaragdina tending scale insects Oecophylla smaragdina tending.jpg
O. smaragdina tending scale insects

Large colonies of Oecophylla weaver ants consume significant amounts of food, and workers continuously kill a variety of arthropods (primarily other insects) close to their nests. Insects are not only consumed by workers, but this protein source is necessary for brood development. Because weaver ant workers hunt and kill insects that are potentially harmful plant pests, trees harboring weaver ants benefit from having decreased levels of herbivory. [19] They have traditionally been used in biological control in Chinese and Southeast Asian citrus orchards from at least 400 AD. [20] [21] Many studies have shown the efficacy of using weaver ants as natural biocontrol agents against agricultural pests. [22] The use of weaver ants as biocontrol agents has especially been effective for fruit agriculture, particularly in Australia and southeast Asia. [23] [24] Fruit trees harboring weaver ants produce higher quality fruits, show less leaf damage by herbivores, and require fewer applications of synthetic pesticides. [24] [25] They do on the other hand protect the scale insects which they 'milk' for honeydew. In several cases the use of weaver ants has nonetheless been shown to be more efficient than applying chemical insecticides and at the same time cheaper, leaving farmers with increased net incomes and more sustainable pest control. [26]

Weaver ant husbandry is often practiced in Southeast Asia, where farmers provide shelter, food and construct ropes between trees populated with weaver ants in order to protect their colonies from potential competitors. [27]

Oecophylla colonies may not be entirely beneficial to the host plants. Studies indicate that the presence of Oecophylla colonies may also have negative effects on the performance of host plants by reducing fruit removal by mammals and birds and therefore reducing seed dispersal and by lowering the flower-visiting rate of flying insects including pollinators. [28] [29] Weaver ants also have an adverse effect on tree productivity by protecting sap feeding insects such as scale insects and leafhoppers from which they collect honeydew. [29] [30] By protecting these insects from predators they increase their population and increase the damage they cause to trees. [31]

Food and medicine

Leaf packets of larvae in Isaan typically sell for about 20 Thai Baht each (about 0.65 USD) Ants Eggs Market Thailand.jpg
Leaf packets of larvae in Isaan typically sell for about 20 Thai Baht each (about 0.65 USD)

Weaver ants are one of the most valued types of insects eaten by humans (entomophagy). In addition to being used as a biological control agent to increase plant production, weaver ants can be utilized directly as a protein and food source since the ants (especially the ant larvae) are edible for humans and high in protein and fatty acids. [32] In some countries the weaver ant is a highly prized delicacy harvested in vast amounts and in this way contributing to local socioeconomics. [33] In Northeastern Thailand the price of weaver ant larvae is twice the price of good-quality beef and in a single Thai province ant larvae worth US$620,000 are harvested every year. [34] [35] It has furthermore been shown that the harvest of weaver ants can be maintained while at the same time using the ants for biocontrol of pest insects in tropical plantations, since the queen larvae and pupae that are the primary target of harvest, are not vital for colony survival. [36]

The larvae of weaver ants are also collected commercially as an expensive feed for insect-eating birds in Indonesia, and the worker ants are used in traditional medicine in e.g. India and China. [3] [37]

See also

Related Research Articles

Ant Family of insects

Ants are eusocial insects of the family Formicidae and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong to the order Hymenoptera. Ants evolved from vespoid wasp ancestors in the Cretaceous period, and diversified after the rise of flowering plants. More than 13,800 of an estimated total of 22,000 species have been classified. They are easily identified by their geniculate (elbowed) antennae and the distinctive node-like structure that forms their slender waists.

<i>Atta</i> (ant) Genus of ants

Atta is a genus of New World ants of the subfamily Myrmicinae. It contains at least 17 known species.

Leafcutter ant Any of 47 species of leaf-chewing ants

Leafcutter ants, a non-generic name, are any of 47 species of leaf-chewing ants belonging to the two genera Atta and Acromyrmex. These species of tropical, fungus-growing ants are all endemic to South and Central America, Mexico, and parts of the southern United States. Leafcutter ants can carry twenty times their body weight and cut and process fresh vegetation to serve as the nutritional substrate for their fungal cultivates.

Fire ant Genus of red ants

Fire ants are several species of ants in the genus Solenopsis, which includes over 200 species. Solenopsis are stinging ants, and most of their common names reflect this, for example, ginger ants and tropical fire ants. Many of the names shared by this genus are often used interchangeably to refer to other species of ant, such as the term red ant, mostly because of their similar coloration despite not being in the genus Solenopsis. Both Myrmica rubra and Pogonomyrmex barbatus are common examples of non-Solenopsis ants being termed red ants.

Red imported fire ant Species of ant

The red imported fire ant, also known as the fire ant or RIFA, is a species of ant native to South America. A member of the genus Solenopsis in the subfamily Myrmicinae, it was described by Swiss entomologist Felix Santschi as a variant of S. saevissima in 1916. Its current specific name invicta was given to the ant in 1972 as a separate species. However, the variant and species were the same ant, and the name was preserved due to its wide use. Though South American in origin, the red imported fire ant has been accidentally introduced in Australia, New Zealand, several Asian and Caribbean countries, and the United States. The red imported fire ant is polymorphic, as workers appear in different shapes and sizes. The ant's colours are red and somewhat yellowish with a brown or black gaster, but males are completely black. Red imported fire ants are dominant in altered areas and live in a wide variety of habitats. They can be found in rain forests, disturbed areas, deserts, grasslands, alongside roads and buildings, and in electrical equipment. Colonies form large mounds constructed from soil with no visible entrances because foraging tunnels are built and workers emerge far away from the nest.

Fungus-growing ants Tribe of ants

Fungus-growing ants comprise all the known fungus-growing ant species participating in ant–fungus mutualism. They are known for cutting grasses and leaves, carrying them to their colonies' nests, and using them to grow fungus on which they later feed.

Carpenter ant Genus of ants (Camponotus spp.)

Carpenter ants are large ants indigenous to many forested parts of the world.

Pharaoh ant Species of ant

The pharaoh ant is a small (2 mm) yellow or light brown, almost transparent ant notorious for being a major indoor nuisance pest, especially in hospitals. The pharaoh ant, a cryptogenic species, has now been introduced to virtually every area of the world, including Europe, the Americas, Australasia and Southeast Asia. It is a major pest in the United States, Australia, and Europe.

Army ant Name used for several ant species

The name army ant (or legionary ant or marabunta) is applied to over 200 ant species in different lineages. Because of their aggressive predatory foraging groups, known as "raids", a huge number of ants forage simultaneously over a limited area.

<i>Atta sexdens</i> Species of ant

Atta sexdens is a species of leafcutter ant belonging to the tribe Attini, native to the New World, from the southern United States (Texas) to northern Argentina. They are absent from Chile. They cut leaves to provide a substrate for the fungus farms which are their principal source of food. Their societies are among the most complex found in social insects. A. sexdens is an ecologically important species, but also an agricultural pest. Other Atta species, such as Atta texana, Atta cephalotes and others, have similar behavior and ecology.

<i>Oecophylla smaragdina</i> Species of ant

Oecophylla smaragdina is a species of arboreal ant found in tropical Asia and Australia. These ants form colonies with multiple nests in trees, each nest being made of leaves stitched together using the silk produced by the ant larvae.

Banded sugar ant Species of carpenter ant (Camponotus consobrinus)

The banded sugar ant, also known as the sugar ant, is a species of ant native to Australia. A member of the genus Camponotus in the subfamily Formicinae, it was described by German entomologist Wilhelm Ferdinand Erichson in 1842. Its common name refers to the ant's liking for sugar and sweet food, as well as the distinctive orange-brown band that wraps around its gaster.

<i>Nothomyrmecia</i> Genus of ants

Nothomyrmecia, also known as the dinosaur ant or dawn ant, is a extremely rare genus of ants consisting of a single species, Nothomyrmecia macrops. These ants live in South Australia, nesting in old-growth mallee woodland and Eucalyptus woodland. The full distribution of Nothomyrmecia has never been assessed, and it is unknown how widespread the species truly is; its potential range may be wider if it does favour old-growth mallee woodland. Possible threats to its survival include habitat destruction and climate change. Nothomyrmecia is most active when it is cold because workers encounter fewer competitors and predators such as Camponotus and Iridomyrmex, and it also increases hunting success. Thus, the increase of temperature may prevent them from foraging and very few areas would be suitable for the ant to live in. As a result, the IUCN lists the ant as Critically Endangered.

<i>Iridomyrmex</i> Genus of ants

Iridomyrmex is a genus of ants called rainbow ants first described by Austrian entomologist Gustav Mayr in 1862. He placed the genus in the subfamily Dolichoderinae of the family Formicidae. It has 79 described species and five fossil species. Most of these ants are native to Australia; others are found in Asia and Oceania, and they have been introduced to Brazil, New Zealand, and the United Arab Emirates. Fossil species are known from China, France, and the United States.

Meat ant Species of ant

The meat ant, also known as the gravel ant or southern meat ant, is a species of ant endemic to Australia. A member of the genus Iridomyrmex in the subfamily Dolichoderinae, it was described by British entomologist Frederick Smith in 1858. The meat ant is associated with many common names due to its appearance, nest-building behaviour and abundance, of which its specific name, purpureus, refers to its coloured appearance. It is among the best-known species of ant found throughout Australia; it occurs in almost all states and territories except for Tasmania. Its enormous distribution, aggression and ecological importance have made this ant a dominant species.

Argentine ant Species of ant

The Argentine ant, formerly Iridomyrmex humilis, is an ant native to northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil. It is an invasive species that has been established in many Mediterranean climate areas, inadvertently introduced by humans to many places, including South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, Easter Island, Australia, Europe, Hawaii, and the continental United States.

Green-head ant Species of ant

The green-head ant, also known as the green ant or metallic pony ant, is a species of ant that is endemic to Australia. It was described by British entomologist Frederick Smith in 1858 as a member of the genus Rhytidoponera in the subfamily Ectatomminae. These ants measure between 5 to 7 mm. The queens and workers look similar, differing only in size, with the males being the smallest. They are well known for their distinctive metallic appearance, which varies from green to purple or even reddish-violet. Among the most widespread of all insects in Australia, green-head ants are found in almost every Australian state, but are absent in Tasmania. They have also been introduced in New Zealand, where several populations have been established.

<i>Oecophylla longinoda</i> Species of ant

Oecophylla longinoda is a species of arboreal ant found in the forested regions of tropical Africa. They are one of only two extant species of the genus Oecophylla, the other being O. smaragdina. They make nests in trees made of leaves stitched together using the silk produced by their larvae.

<i>Myrmecia nigrocincta</i> Species of ant

Myrmecia nigrocincta, commonly known as the jumper ant or jumping jack, is an ant of the genus Myrmecia. The species was first described by Frederick Smith in 1858. Colonies of this ant are abundant in eastern Australia. Ants of this species are known for their ability to jump up to 10 centimetres, and they also have a powerful, venomous sting. Rather than foraging on the ground, M. nigrocincta prefer to forage in trees where they are known to pollinate certain flowers.

This is a glossary of terms used in the descriptions of ants.


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