Human trade and travel are breaking-down biogeographic barriers, resulting in shifts in the geographical distribution of organisms, yet it remains largely unknown whether different alien species generally follow similar spatiotemporal colonization patterns and how such patterns are driven by trends in global trade. Here, we analyse the global distribution of 241 alien ant species and show that these species comprise four distinct groups that inherently differ in their worldwide distribution from that of native species. The global spread of these four distinct species groups has been greatly, but differentially, influenced by major events in recent human history, in particular historical waves of globalization (approximately 1850-1914, and 1960-present), world wars and global recessions. Species in these four groups also differ in six important morphological and life-history traits and their degree of invasiveness. Combining spatiotemporal distribution data with life-history trait information provides valuable insight into the processes driving biological invasions and facilitates identification of species most likely to become invasive in the future.