The black head of a bull ant with large brown mandibles.

The head of a bull ant.

Ants are everywhere

Australian ants are a large and diverse group of insects that are an important part of our natural environment.

  • 22 February 2006 | Updated 12 December 2013

Ants belong to the family Formicidae, which forms part of the order Hymenoptera. This order of insects also includes bees and wasps.

Ants are ubiquitous. In fact around 15 000 species and subspecies of ants have been described world wide, with just over 1 300 known from Australia so far. Most Australians are familiar with ants be they:

  • bulldog or bull ants (Myrmecia sp.)
  • jack-jumper or jumper ants (Myrmecia pilosula species group)
  • green-headed or metallic pony ants (Rhytidoponera metallica)
  • meat ants (Iridomyrmex sp.)
  • sugar ants (Camponotus sp.)
  • green tree ants (Oecophylla smaragdina).

Ants are found in all Australian States and Territories and in all terrestrial habitats. While numerous species live in bushland and rainforests, fewer are found in suburban gardens and buildings.

Life history

Ants are social insects and form colonies. These vary in size (depending on species) from a dozen or so individuals to many thousands.

Ants are found in all Australian States and Territories, and so far around 15 000 species and subspecies have been described world wide.

In a colony, there are three castes or social levels:

  • the wingless and usually sterile female workers
  • fertile females or queens
  • males.

The workers, all sterile females, are most commonly seen, as they forage for food. They are usually similar in appearance to the queen but smaller. Males are often wasp like in appearance.

Ants vary in length from about 1 to 30 mm and are typically black, brown, red, yellow or a combination of these colours.

Habits, behaviour and nest sites vary widely between species. Many are scavengers and  have varied diets, while others are specialist seed-eaters or predators.

Winged males and queens are produced at certain times of the year and, when conditions are right, leave the nest on mating flights. After mating, the queen bites off her wings and establishes a new colony.  She will not come to the surface again but will stay underground and lay eggs. The male dies after mating.

Are they pests?

Some ants, such as bulldog or bullants, are troublesome because they give painful stings, while the venom of jack-jumper or jumper ants can cause severe allergic reactions.  Unlike bees that can only sting once, ants can sting multiple times.

Others, such as meat ants and green tree ants, don't sting but bite and then spray formic acid into the wound.

Some ants are nuisance pests when they make mounds, disturb paving or invade buildings.

Some introduced species are both nuisance and environmental pests, including:

  • Argentine ant (Linepithema humile)
  • red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta)
  • crazy ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes)
  • electric ant (Wasmannia auropunctatata)
  • big headed ant or coastal brown ant (Pheidole megacephala).

It is important to remember that native ant species play an important part in natural food webs.

Discover more about ants at Australian Ants Online [external link].

Andersen AN. 1991. The ants of southern Australia: a guide to the Bassian fauna. CSIRO, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Andersen AN. 2000. The ants of northern Australia: a guide to the monsoonal fauna. CSIRO, East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

Greenslade PJM. 1979. A guide to ants of South Australia. South Australian Museum. Special Educational Bulletin Series. Adelaide, South Australia.

Shattuck SO. 1999. Australian ants: their biology and identification. Monographs on Invertebrate Taxonomy, vol. 3. CSIRO PUBLISHING, Collingwood, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.