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All About Ant Communication

Ants crawling on branch

Ants are one of the most socially complex creatures in the animal kingdom. There are over 12,000 known species of ants and they outnumber us a million to one. Within each ant colony, individuals belong to a certain caste and perform specific tasks. At the top of the hierarchy is the queen, whose only job is to lay eggs to keep the colony thriving. Fertilized eggs become non-reproductive females who care for the young, forage for food, and defend the colony. Unfertilized eggs become male ants who do not have a role in the colony until it is time to reproduce.

Once the queen has produced enough eggs to sustain the colony (which can take a single season or several years), she begins producing male and female winged ants called alates. These winged alates leave the nest on a nuptial flight, with males seeking new colonies to reproduce with and females looking to mate and begin producing new colonies of their own.

These complex behaviors are coordinated among ants through several different methods of communication. Primarily, ants communicate through pheromones, vibration, touch, and sound–and they are all fascinating. 

Ants congregating on ground

Communication Through Pheromones

Pheromones are chemicals animals produce that change another animal of the same species’ behavior. Ants have glands to excrete pheromones located on their head, thorax, legs, and gaster (located on the ant’s abdomen). These pheromones are then detected through ants’ antennae. 

There are many different pheromones that ants can produce, and they all have different purposes. Ants use pheromones to alert the colony to danger, to attract mates, or to give directions. There are pheromones that signal for ants to congregate at a specific location and ones that deter ants in other colonies from entering a foreign colony. 

One very common use of communication through pheromones is when scout ants are foraging for food. As they forage, they lay down a pheromone trail before they find anything, and once they do, they double back along their own pheromone trail, strengthening it as they head back to the colony. As more ants from the colony come out to investigate, the trail gets even stronger. Some species of ants only follow their own pheromone trails, while other ants follow the pheromone trails of other ant species as well. 

It should be noted that while this communication is remarkable, it is not considered direct communication. The pheromone signals the ants put out increase the probability that other ants will change their behavior in response to the stimuli. Picture a street full of people who can all smell delicious food being prepared in a food truck, and watching some line up and others walk by. The smell increases the probability their behavior will change, but no one is forcing anyone to do anything. 

Ant on leaf

Communication Through Vibration

Another way ants communicate with each other is by using vibration. Not all ants have been observed communicating in this way, but there are several species that do so. Here in the midwest, tree-dwelling carpenter ants utilize drumming or body-rapping to communicate warning signals. They bang their heads or antennae on a hard surface (like the trunk of a tree) and other ants along the same surface feel the vibration and pick up on the signal. 

Across the world in Africa, leaf-cutter ants have also been observed using vibration to communicate. These ants vibrate either to alert other ants to danger or to tell others about the location of delicious leaves. Hopefully, these two vibrations sound different so the ants can know which is which!

Congregating ants

Communication Through Touch

Ants can pass on information just by brushing up against each other as well. Ants touch each other’s cuticles, the outer covering encasing the entire ant, and pick up on natural scent molecules called hydrocarbons. Each hydrocarbon has its own unique odor and can tell a lot about an ant, from its colony to its caste. Imagine if others were able to tell that much about us just by smelling our natural body odor! It seems invasive, but for ants, it is entirely normal. Ants also touch each other’s bodies with their antennae and forelegs to pass along messages. Sometimes, a scout ant will even pass a piece of food it has stored to another ant as they are communicating so the other ants know that a delicious meal is waiting to be brought back to their colony.

Communication Through Sound

Different than using vibration to pass along messages, some species of ants have the ability to produce noise on their own. These species have a specialized spike on their abdomen and when they drag their leg along it, it produces a sound referred to as a stridulation or a chirp. These noises are actually audible to the human ear if you are close enough to the ant! Entomologists believed that only adults could communicate in this way, but new research has established that ant pupae have been observed doing it as well. Even more interestingly, the noises that pupae made were similar to adult ants but less sophisticated, indicating that as the pupae mature, so does their “vocabulary.”

Ants on stick

The Fascinating World of Ant Communication

Ants, being a highly social species, have developed many different methods of communication. They can alert the colony to danger, inform each other as to where food is, mark their territories, coordinate the nuptial flight, and have even been observed peer pressuring each other! Using their various methods of communication, especially in tandem, ants are able to communicate much more than you may have thought. Though we have been studying ants for over 100 years, there is always more to learn. If you find yourself frustrated by ants in your home, or overrun by ants in your business, contact us today to learn how Spidexx keeps you protected from ants year-round!