Camponotus herculeanus (carpenter ant)

One of the more famous carpenter ants is the Camponotus herculeanus. It is also one of the world’s largest ant species. The common name “Hercules ant” is not that surprising considering its size and strong jaws. Camponotus herculeanus likes to nest in both trees, rotten wood and the walls of our homes.

ant species camponotus herculeanus

Appearance

Worker: Length 5-12 mm. The ant species is very dark, but the workers have a visibly reddish middle segment as well as red legs. The have many hairs and the abdomen is the body part with the most of them. They are sorted in groups and forms something that looks like eyelashes at the end of every back plate of the abdomen. It is not easy separating the Camponotus herculeanus workers from those of the close relative Camponotus ligniperda. What sets them apart though is the red area at the beginning of the abdomen. The Hercules ants have a very small red “dot” whereas the ligniperda have a much more visible red area. Just as the queen the workers have strong jaws capable of digging through hard materials such as wood.

Queen: Length 14-17 mm. The color is much darker than the workers with a black and brown shade. The sides of the body and legs have a transparent red/brown color. The hairs don’t differ much from the workers.

Male: Length 7-11 mm. Thinner body than the queens. The males are very hard to separate from the males of Camponotus ligniperda. But if you look closely you’ll see that the Camponotus herculeanus ants have a bit more and thicker hairs as well as a slightly lighter color of the wings. (1)

Camponotus herculeanus carptenter ants nest

Old wood previously inhabited by Camponotus herculeanus. The tunnels and chambers of the nest are visibly clear. Photo: BlueBreezeWiki – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Two Camponotus herculeanus workers

Two workers of the ant species of Camponotus herculeanus. Photo: Volker Borovsky CC BY-SA 3.0

Distribution

This carpenter ant is found in large areas of the world. From the northern Palearctic to Middle Europe and east to the south of Siberia. In the southern parts of its distribution area the species is only found high above sea level than it would be in the northern parts. Camponotus herculeanus, as well as the other Camponotus species, is not found on either Iceland or the British isles. Quite peculiar actually.

Habitat och Nests

The natural nesting site of the Hercules ants is not in the walls of buildings. The species is of course much, much older than our human settlements. But nowadays it doesn’t mind building their colonies in our building’s exteriors. Their natural habitat is the forests, even the really dense ones (which is unusual for Northern ants). They tend to nest in rotten or living wood like trees or stubs. With their strong jaws the carpenter ants dig their way through the material and carve out their tunnels and chambers. It likes to settle in coniferous woods. Camponotus herculeanus can build “long” nests. Their tunnels can go as high up as 10 meters in a tree. They also build their ant nests in stubs or rotten wood, connecting several structures with underground tunnels.

Behaviour

Camponotus herculeanus is one of the really big ants of the world.  At the same time it’s one of the more discrete ones as well. Even though they from time to time settle in the exterior of houses they are rarely noticed by us humans. Sadly enough it’s not unusual that their nests destroys property and in turn costs the owners a lot of money. (2) One very interesting thing with the species is that they sometimes use sound to communicate. The workers beats on the wooden surfaces of the nest to warn the rest of the colony. The sound can travel up to 20 centimeters and makes the nearby colony members aware of a threat or otherwise. (3)

Nuptial Flights

New queens and male alates are hatched late in the summer. Since the mating season is over they spend the winter in the nest waiting for spring. Early summer is when their nuptial flights starts, from the end of May to the beginning of July. The carpenter ant of Camponotus herculeanus tend to fly late in the afternoon and in the evening. (4)

Lifespan

The lifespan of a queen is believed to be around 10-15 years.

Castes

Camponotus herculeanus castes are strongly associated with the age of the individual ant (typical age polytheism). The young ants stay behind in the nest and tend to the brood and queens whilst their older sisters go outside to forage food, gather building materials and defend the colony from enemies. Read more about castes here: Ants | Caste systems in ant societies

From Egg to Ant

From egg to ant: 8-10 weeks. (although this is not completely clear, see below)

Some numbers that have been reported throughout the internet, but do not add up to the 8-10 weeks timeline given earlier: Egg to larvae: 10-16 days. Larvae to pupae: 10-14 days. Pupae to adult: 10-24 days. If you have information on this, please contact us.

Carpenter ant colonies develop slowly. The egg to ant process takes a lot longer than in some other species, like the Formicas. The development pace of the egg to ant process strongly depends on the temperature in the nest.

Captivity

Camponotus herculeanus is easy to keep at home. They only require a bit of patience since their development is not as quick as in other species. But instead they are big and impressive ants. Their formicarium should be of a strong material of which they cannot dig tunnels to get out. Glas, hard plastic or similar is preferred. Why not put a piece of wood behind glass and see them carve it out?

Video showing the insides of a colony of Camponotus herculeanus:

References:

1. Per Douwes, Johan Abenius, Björn Cederberg, Urban Wahlstedt (2012) Nationalnyckeln ”Steklar: Myror-getingar. Hymenoptera: Formicidae-Vespidae” p. 136-137

2. Per Douwes, Johan Abenius, Björn Cederberg, Urban Wahlstedt (2012) Nationalnyckeln ”Steklar: Myror-getingar. Hymenoptera: Formicidae-Vespidae” p. 136

3. Bert Holldobler & Edward O. Wilson (1990) ”The Ants” p. 256

4. Per Douwes, Johan Abenius, Björn Cederberg, Urban Wahlstedt (2012) Nationalnyckeln ”Steklar: Myror-getingar. Hymenoptera: Formicidae-Vespidae” p. 137

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