The queen is the center of a fire ant colony. The queen begins her life as a winged ant. She is one of hundreds of male and female winged ants. During the summer, the winged ants fly out of their colony. They mate with the winged ants from other colonies. The fertilized female digs a burrow to make a nest.
The female produces a few eggs. When the eggs hatch, she feeds the larvae with nutrients she has carried with her during the mating flight. She tends these larvae until they develop into adult workers. The new workers go out to find food and the new queen begins to produce eggs.
Fire ant workers live as long as 70 weeks, however that time can be much shorter. In order for the colony to grow, the queen must produce enough eggs to replace the workers that die plus additional workers to expand the colony. In a large colony, the queen can produce more than 1000 eggs per day – more than her body weight.
The fire ant queen controls the sex of the ants that will hatch from her eggs. If she does not fertilize an egg, it will develop into a male ant. If she does fertilize the egg, it will develop into a female ant. After the eggs hatch, chemicals that the queen produces determine whether the female larvae will develop into sterile workers or winged future queens.
Scientists have studied the fire ant queens to find out why some colonies have only one queen and other colonies have multiple queens. They have found that the single-queen colonies can have more workers but the colonies compete aggressively. The multiple-queen colonies seem to have fewer workers, but the colonies cooperate without fighting.
The fire ant queen lives about seven years. By that time, she is unable to fertilize any more eggs. Scientists suspect that the queen “wears out” from so much egg production.