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General Information on Ant Behavior

5/20/2015

Ants are social insects that live in colonies that may reach as many as a few million members. Ants work together to gather food and care for the young, and their behavior is surprisingly coordinated and methodical for such seemingly simple insects.

Ant functions depend on the ant’s caste. Three castes of ants perform different roles in the colony:

Queens are females who were fed more when they were larvae, so they’re bigger than the workers. The queens lay all the eggs in the colony (amounting to millions in some species). They have wings and fly to find a mate. They tear their wings off before forming a new colony. After mating, the queen starts a new nest (colony) and raises her first worker offspring. This is the only time in her life that the queen does any work other than laying eggs.

Workers are females who were fed less when they were larvae. Workers are wingless and don’t reproduce. They do all the other jobs in the colony, including gathering food, building the nest and taking care of the young.  

Males have wings and fly to mate with queens. The males don’t do any chores in the colony. Their only job is to mate with the queens. They die shortly after mating, so the only time you’ll see them is during this act.

How do ants communicate with their nest-mates to find food?

Many ant species communicate using chemical scents called pheromones. When worker ants leave their nest to search for food, they leave behind a trail of pheromone—like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to help find your way home. After the ant finds food, it turns around and follows its pheromone trail back to the nest. As it travels home, it again leaves pheromone on the trail, creating another layer of pheromones and leaving a stronger scent along that path as it goes. When other ants come across this thickly laid pheromone trail, they abandon their own random search for food to follow the pheromones to the food source.

How do ants find the shortest route between their nest and food?

Pheromones explain this common ant behavior. Ants like to travel along the trails that have the strongest pheromone scent. Ants traveling on a shorter trail between the nest and food can make more trips in an hour than ants traveling along longer trails, leaving more pheromone. Therefore, over time, the shortest trail has the strongest pheromone scent and becomes the preferred trail. That explains why you see ants marching in a straight line directly toward your picnic.

How do red harvester ants coordinate their food foraging efforts?

Red harvester ants feed on seeds that are scattered by the wind instead of collecting in patches, so they forage individually instead of following pheromone trails. A returning worker ant drops the seed at the entrance tunnel to the nest, where it’s transported by another ant deeper into the nest. The forager ant is then free to continue looking for another seed. In areas where food is scarce, ants need to conserve their resources (i.e., not send too many ants out to look for food). A research study found that the forager ants decide when to leave their nest based on how often the other foragers return with food. If there’s plenty of food nearby, the foraging ants return quickly and recruit more workers to help gather food. When food is scarce, the foragers have to travel further, so they return more slowly. In this case, fewer ants are sent out to join the hunt. This coordination of worker ants’ efforts is a good example of adaptive ant behavior.

Contact Terminix® today to have a pest control specialist inspect your property for any signs of an ant infestation.