New Delhi: It’s that time of the year when we unwittingly squash a few under our feet or willingly crush an entire row out of the nooks and crevices of our homes as they take refuge from the onslaught of the monsoon on their nests. The ubiquitous ant is more like a pest if it happens to come our way; not something we pay attention to. “But if you happen to do a closer scrutiny, you are taken into a fascinating world of complex communication, strategy and discipline," says myrmecologist Himender Bharti, who made the latest discovery of the ant species ‘Myrmica Latra’ in Himachal Pradesh.

Myrmecology is the scientific study of ants.

In July, the “socially parasitic" robber ant Myrmica Latra (latra means robber or thief in Latin) was described for the first time in science journal ZooKeys, taking the ant species count in the country to 829—a number you may never have imagined.

The species was found under stones on a sparsely vegetated mountain slope marked by a couple of pine and cedar trees. This new robber ant was inside the nest of another ant species—Myrmica aimonissabaudiae, a common species in the Himalayan region.

Based in Patiala, Punjab, Bharti specializes in ants and evolutionary biology, and has described 70 new species to science including two species listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In January, Bharti published the comprehensive checklist of Indian ants in ZooKeys where he states that endemism, the state of being unique to a particular geographic location, of Indian ants (31%) is much higher than for birds (4.3%), mammals (11%), fish (8%) or flowering plants (10%).

There are 12,000 different species of ants on the planet and they have been on earth much longer than us. According to celebrated conservation biologists Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, their total body weight equals the weight of the entire human population.

Entomologists say that ants have been on earth since the cretaceous period, that’s about 145 million years ago and are found on all continents except Antarctica. This also means ants have witnessed the extinction of the dinosaurs. Scientists concur that since their origin, ants have undergone numerous diversifications but have remained social insects living in family groups with a distinct caste system—the queen, drone (male) and worker ants.

Ants have a fascinating work ethic and for ages captivated naturalists and researchers with their ability to carry loads much higher than individual body weights. From barely a millimeter long to the largest at 3cm, ants are nature’s Lilliputians, an unmatched workforce eulogized in literature and fables (remember Aesop’s the Ant and the Grasshopper story).

Research on the foraging behaviour of ants has revealed a complex communication network, an optimization problem-solving technique more intricate than any of our technology giants.

The ants we see scurrying in an orderly line on the doorstep or on the window ledge are likely the tiny red ant (Monomorium pharaonis or Pharaoh ant); the tiny black ant (Monomorium indicum) or a slightly bigger black ant—the carpenter ant (Camponotus compressus).

In May, at a nature conservation symposium in the University of Chicago Center, Delhi, myrmecologist Corrie Moreau said, “There are more than 13,000 species of ants in the world—that’s more than the checklist of birds (10,426), mammals (5,416), amphibians (7,546) or reptiles (10,272)." Only fish species outnumber ants.

“Ants are known to be world’s first farmers, growing their own food for 50 million years and they are a female dominated society. So, pretty much every ant you have seen is likely to be a female. All workers, soldiers, nurses and foragers are females. Males are only produced once a year and offer no help to the nest. Virgin queens and males have only wings," said Moreau.

Wilson, who is a living legend among myrmecologists and conservation biologists famously wrote, “They are the little things that run the world." Ants and other invertebrates engage in symbioses with other organisms like plants, animals, fungi and bacteria to run the ecosystem that we live in.

“It is a common misconception that vertebrates are the movers and shakers of the world, tearing the vegetation down, cutting paths through the forest, and consuming most of the energy. The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change. But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months," wrote Wilson.

In 2015, a science paper revealed how ants are also bio-indicators of rainfall. According to Surjyoti S. Bagchi, the author of the “Weaver ants as bio-indicator for rainfall: An observation", published in Scholars Research Library, “In central India, observation has shown that weaver ants’ nest building activity is related to rainfall and the amount of rain in the monsoon in Nagpur district can be predicted based on the size, shape, numbers and position of weaver ants’ nests."

“Ants make up most of the insect biomass, and weigh more than all the land vertebrates combined. In part, they have accomplished this feat by elaborate symbioses. The importance of ants is reflected by their ubiquity and the great number of interactions in which they are capable of participating within an ecological community. The study of ants has led to significant advances in our understanding of insect evolution, global diversity patterns, competitive interactions, mutualisms, ecosystem responses to change, and biological invasions. Improved understanding of ants, how to identify them, where they live, what they do is a vital task in sustainably developing our world. As central players in many ecosystems, ants are bio-indicators of ecosystem health and functioning," says Bharti.

But all is not well in the ant world. According to Bharti, invasive species of ants have begun colonizing large parts of the country, pushing away the endemic species. This is creating an imbalance in the ecosystem. “Invasive species are more adaptable and hardy. They can modify the ecosystem and make difficult for more specialized native species to compete with them," says Bharti.

Scientific surveys have documented 24 non-native species in India, which are spreading fast, especially in the two most biogeographically important landscapes, the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. These two biodiversity areas harbour large number of native species. There are 656 species of ants recorded from the Himalayan landscape and 455 ant species from the Western Ghats.

“From the total 829 ant species in India, 256 species (31%) we considered endemic to India and approximately 71% of these endemics are exclusively concentrated in two of the above listed biodiversity hotspots," says Bharti. While based on the currently available data, West Bengal has the highest number of ant species at 382.

“Despite all these efforts, our knowledge about the diversity and distribution of Indian ants remains incomplete and fragmentary," says Bharti.

He says popular interest lies in large charismatic mega fauna like tigers, lions, elephants and rhinos or colourful birds and butterflies “overlooking the importance of these super organisms". “There is apathy in creating policies, generating resources and providing support to myrmecologists."

“It is time to acknowledge the ecological importance of ants in our terrestrial ecosystems. Although our knowledge of ants in most Indian states remains relatively poor due to lack of resources, the high levels of endemism in Indian ants should be taken seriously by the government. Policies should be enacted and implemented for sustained long-term monitoring for the conservation of Indian myrmecofauna," says Bharti.

Wilson and Hölldobler also wrote, “The neglect of ants in science and natural history is a shortcoming that should be remedied, for they represent the culmination of insect evolution, in the same sense that human beings represent the summit of vertebrate evolution. If human beings were not so impressed by size alone, they would consider an ant more wonderful than a rhino."