How Do Ants Communicate?

Last Updated: 18.02.20

 

Ants can look for food or even move their nest around your house. So having a pet safe ant killer is necessary. The way that ants communicate makes them very effective when it comes to moving in large groups. As far as we know, ants communicate with each other through touching, body language, pheromones, sound, and vibrations.

 

Communicating by touching one another

The key to this type of communication is the ant’s antennae. For a long time, scientists believed the antenna is just a receptor of information. However, recent studies showed that it works as a two-way form of communication.

The antenna is used for sending and receiving chemical signals known as pheromones. These chemical signals are specific to each colony. So ants use their antennae to identify their friends or potential intruders. Furthermore, ants have the ability to store hydrocarbons in their mandibles. By touching mandibles, an ant will find what the role of the other ant is or if it is from a different colony.

This is why you often see ants bumping into each other. It is their way of meeting and greeting one another. Nevertheless, if two ants from different colonies encounter each other, the ant without any backup will quickly retreat.

During the research, scientists washed away the chemicals from the antenna of an ant. The nest mates of that particular ant were unable to identify it as one of their colony members and considered it an intruder.

 

Moving the colony’s nest

When the colony is relocating the nest, the worker ants are usually touching each other. As they transport larvae and pupae, they will form an „ant chain” so workers don’t get lost. This method is more efficient than a pheromone marked trail. 

If the whole colony is moving, multiple pheromone trails from multiple ants could cross one another. This could lead to a state of confusion and a big part of the colony might get lost.

 

 

Body language communication

If a worker ant meets another member of the colony, it will give information by moving her body in a specific manner or by simply touching the other ant. An ant gently pressing particular areas on another ant’s head will determine a jaw reflex. This way, the first ant has the opportunity to share some of its food found at the end of the trail.

 

Sharing food as an act of friendship

A hungry ant might ask a nest mate for something to eat by poking with its antennae. The ant will do this if it feels hungry or simply to get a taste of the colony’s new food source. What you should know about this type of communication is that ants share food that has been already digested. 

Keep in mind that an ant has 2 stomachs. It uses one for its necessities and the second one is used to store food to feed other members of the colony. The process is called trophallaxis and can be observed in insects such as wasps, termites, etc. It can be done mouth to mouth or even anus to mouth.

Although it might seem gross for us, ants don’t look at it this way. It is a highly valued practice amongst ants as a form of friendly interaction.

 

Communicating through pheromones

A pheromone is a chemical substance produced and released in the environment by ants. They use pheromones to influence the behavior or physiology of other ants. The pheromone’s strength is of great importance as it corresponds with how obedient to a request an ant will be.

Glands located on the ant’s head, thorax, gaster, and legs are responsible for producing and storing the chemical substances. The pheromones are detected by highly sensitive sensors placed on the antenna. 

Ants have the ability to detect and differentiate between pheromones. This means some species can pick up pheromones coming from an unfamiliar colony and avoid encountering foreign ants. 

 

Marking the way

If an ant is searching for food, it might travel up to 100 yards from the colony’s nest. Traveling this far away from the nest could put any ant at the risk of getting lost. To avoid this possibly deadly situation, worker ants will use pheromones to mark the way back to the nest.

When looking for a new source of food, the ant will lay down a dotted line of pheromones. On the way back to its colony, the ant will reinforce the strength of the pheromones by laying down a continuous one.

The strength of the trail will alert other ants that a food source is available nearby. In no time at all, hundreds of worker ants will follow the trail to the food source. The trail reinforcement will be continued as other ants will lay down pheromones on their way to the food. The process continues until there is no resource to be carried back to the colony’s nest. 

 

 

Nuptial flight pheromones

Ant queens use pheromones to find suitable partners. The queen releases big volumes of pheromones during the nuptial flight. Alerted by these specific pheromones, drones will come searching for the queen. 

Queens use pheromones in order to make the reproduction process faster. This is of great importance since queens are dependent on energy reserves. It is crucial for them to save time and effort when looking for a mate.

 

Ants communicate through sound

It has been recently observed by scientists that some ant species can communicate through sound. Furthermore, this type of communication may play a big part in their survival as they alert each other of dangerous situations or intruders. More than 200 species living in Europe and Asia can produce various sounds.

These species have something similar to a spike on their abdomen. By touching the spike with one of their back legs, they produce different sounds. Earlier research showed that the ants use this system as an emergency alert in order to call for help or signal an enemy.

Larvae or young ants don’t have yet a functional spike as they have softer outer skeletons than adult ants. As they grow up, the outer shell becomes harder forming a tough exoskeleton. Despite having a specialized spike, ant pupae (a phase between larvae and adult) will be taught not to use it and to remain silent. 

Further research demonstrated that older pupae and mature ants create different sounds when they have an emergency. While younger ants were simply calling for help, adult ones were also giving information about the dangerous situation.

 

Testing the ant’s communication

Scientists recorded these calls for help and played them through speakers into a controlled environment. In both cases, adult ants reacted in the same way. They went over to the speakers, touched them with their antennae and stayed there protecting the sound source.

In order to be sure it wasn’t a coincidence, researchers played through the speakers white noise. This time, there was no reaction from the adult workers ants. Results demonstrate that ants use sounds in order to call for help.

During the same experiment, scientists cut the abdominal spike from a group of adult ants. The experiment continued with creating a dangerous situation for the colony. The nest was damaged and the ants without the abdominal spike were spilled into a controlled area together with some normal larvae and young pupae.

In general, ants save their colony members in exact order: adults, pupae, and larvae are last. This time, the colony ants saved the pupae and the larvae but paid no attention to the adults. They acted like the adults without the spike were not even there.

The noise made by ants together with their pheromones provides complex information. They could even signal their social status in order to be rescued. Despite not completely understanding how ants communicate in such large societies, scientists believe the spike plays an important role in mature pupae. 

They have a different scent than larvae but are unable to produce the pheromones that an adult is producing so using the spike is a helpful way to communicate.

 

 

Communicating through vibrations

Ants are capable of detecting tiny soundwaves. They even can notice another ant worker crawling from a distance of a few feet. This type of communication plays an important part in the colony’s safety. If a worker ant spots a group of foreign ants coming to their nest, the entire colony will be alerted.

There is no surprise that ants have an effective way to communicate. Don’t forget that an ant colony might have thousands or even a few millions of members.

 

 

 

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