How Do Ants Communicate? (Explained)

We take our speech abilities for granted. Most people do not stop to think of how other animals and insects communicate with each other. The world of animal and insect communication is fascinating to study.

Do Ants Communicate With Each Other?

Ants communicate by secreting pheromones that carry information and by touching their antennae to feel and smell each other. Ants make sounds by rubbing parts of their abdomen or stroking a specialized abdominal spike with a hind leg. Ants also communicate via the exchange of mouth liquids.

Ants are amazing creatures that have a diligent work ethic and complex social structure. To achieve this, they must have some way of communicating with each other so that there is organization in the nest. Obviously, ants do not speak as we do, so how do they communicate?

Most of us would not think that ants make any noise at all, and it is a surprise to know that sounds form part of the way they communicate.

How Do Ants Use Pheromones To Communicate?

Pheromones are hormones that function outside of the body to send chemical messages from the ant that secretes the pheromone to the ant that receives it. Ants use pheromones in several ways to communicate an extensive array of information.

The best example that we can see very clearly is that forager ants find food sources and drop pheromones on their way. This allows other ants to follow the pheromones a bit like Hansel and Gretel following the breadcrumbs. The result of these pheromone paths is long lines of ants, marching one behind each other to collect food.

Researchers have recently found that ants communicate to:

  • regulate the ant colony’s foraging efforts
  • create memories of good food supply areas
  • select different foods according to nutrient needs.

Ants can also convey information via pheromones on the location of food sources. Scientists know that this is possible, but they are still trying to identify which pheromones share this information.

Ants also give off pheromones that identify the nest they belong to, their social status, and their maturity. When ants greet each other with their antennae, they can tell if they are friends or foes and what function each ant fulfills in the nest.

The queen ant uses pheromones to signal when she is ready to mate, attracting the drone (male) ants. As the queen ages, she secretes pheromones that tell the ant colony that she is dying. They begin feeding and preparing a pupa to be the new queen.

If an ant encounters a predator or detects a threat to the ant nest, the ant releases alarm pheromones that alert the ants to a potential invasion or danger.

Antennae have olfactory (smell) receptors that allow ants to collect information quickly. They use their antennae to detect pheromone trails and follow a sweeping pattern until they encounter a trail. Once the pheromone trail is found, they follow it with one antenna on either side of the path, ensuring they keep on track.

Do Ants Communicate By Kissing?

Although we may think that ants are kissing when they touch their mouths, they are actually vomiting or regurgitating food to give to the other ant. They ‘feed’ this food together with hormones used to communicate information to the lucky recipient.

This process is known as trophallaxis. The habit is also seen in other animals such as wolves, birds, and vampire bats. Ants have two stomachs, one for themselves and one for sharing food with colony members.

Do Ants Communicate Using Sound?

Ants make various sounds depending on which species they belong to. The sounds are known as stridulations and are produced by different means. Some ants rub two parts of their abdomens together.

Myrmica ants and a few other species have a specialized ridged spike that runs along their abdomen. These ants produce a sound by stroking the spike with one of their hind legs. This process produces a sound similar to running a stick over the teeth of a comb.

Myrmica Rubra | image by Lennart Tange via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Ant stridulations seem to be related to their social status. Worker ants communicate with other worker ants using specific acoustic messages. Stridulations are often utilized in warnings or alarm calls and indicate that the ant needs urgent help.

An alarm call results in all the worker ants in the vicinity rushing to the aid of the ant, which produced the stridulation. This is an interesting social behavior as many social insects protect the colony at the expense of the individual. Ants seem to respond to individuals that need assistance.

Do Ant Pupae Communicate?

ants and pupae | image by Cyndy Sims Parr via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

The idea of ant pupae communicating would have been laughed at ten to fifteen years ago. A study done in 2013 found that larva and immature pupa are silent, but mature pupae surprised the researchers.

As pupae mature, their exoskeletons harden, and so too does the abdominal ridged spike. Sound recordings showed that these pupae were producing sounds similar to adult ants. The acoustic noises could be clearly heard on recordings. What was even more impressive was the response of the adult ants.

Mature pupae that produced the stridulations seemed to be calling for help. Adult ants immediately clustered around these pupae, tending to them, providing extra food, and rescuing the pupae if the nest was disturbed.

It was noted that the pupae mainly emitted sounds similar to worker ant adults. Some pupae had different stridulations, which mimicked the queen ant’s noises. When a new ant queen is needed in the colony, one of these pupae would be the one to emerge to form the new queen.

Insects Eavesdrop On Ants’ Communication

A riveting detail that has been discovered is that insects eavesdrop on the ants’ communication. These insects may be ants from other nests, different species of ants, other insects, or predators. They detect and follow the ants’ pheromone trails that lead to food sources and hijack the food.

Predators may follow pheromone trails back to the nest to raid the nest, eating larvae, pupae, or adult ants.

Conclusion

Ants are not silent little insects that go about their business with no communication. They have a rich social network, and their colonies are highly organized. To achieve this sophisticated level of society, the ants must communicate.

Ants communicate using pheromones and sounds. The more researchers study ants, the more they discover about their ability to translate information to one another, learn, form collective memories and sound alarms. Ants are truly astounding communicators.

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The Critter Hideout

The Critter Hideout talks about all types of creatures and critters including reptiles, amphibians, insects, and spiders. Our goal is to simply share helpful information and answer common questions.