Ants Fighting

Dear Ant Consult-Ant

I have an ant question!

Subject: Ant activity

In mid May at about 6:00 in the evening in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, I was walking along the sidewalk and saw some small black ants swarming. I like to watch queens come out so I sat down to watch. I stayed about 45 minutes and I didn't see a single wing. What I did see was amazing. The ants were small black ants. After a few minutes the ants started forming patterns. Two ants that were narrower than most would lock jaws. Then two normal ants would grab onto the heads of these two to form a plus sign or X. They would stay like that for 6-7 minutes then breakup. Sometimes 4 more of the normal ants would grab onto the abdomens of the 4 ants and form a plus sign of eight ants. In the time I was there there were always 15 to 30 of these symbols. I am not sure how many separate nests were participating. I left to get a camera and a collecting jar. When I came back the show was over. Is this common behavior? I have not seen it before. What was going on?

Dear Dave,

Clusters of ants acting in an excited manner do often indicate swarming. As you noticed, however, you would expect to see winged queens and males mingled among the workers. Instead, from what you describe, it sounds like you witnessed a a fight between two nearby colonies of ants.

When ants fight each other, they tend to latch onto antennae and legs and pull hard, thus creating the X's you describe.

Above three ants from one colony pull on a single ant from another colony.

More ants join in, and it becomes a tug of war.

Sometimes one species of ant attacks another, such as these weaver ants attacking a much smaller species.

(Photo from Wikimedia) This one looks more like a Y than a X.

They may use the same behavior with prey.

(Photo from Wikimedia)

Ants may fight other ants to gain access to food, to defend their nest from hostile take over, or to defend the area around their nest (territory).

Some ants are more likely to fight than others. In Mark Moffett's Book Adventures Among Ants, he has a chapter devoted to the territorial disputes between two huge colonies of Argentine ants in California. Along the front line literally millions of ants die every month in what is a never-ending struggle.

On the other hand, a dispute between honeypot ants may be resolved by mere posturing, no actual fighting may occur.

Sounds like you witnessed an interesting event, which left an impression on you. Without knowing the species involved, etc., I hesitate to speculate further as what was happening.

Thank you for sharing this question. Let me know if you make any more interesting observations.

-The Consult-Ant

(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. From now on I will post the answers here, and when Karen has time she will also post the answers on her site.)

9 thoughts on “Ants Fighting

  1. jw

    I have two large species of ants that live in my trees, one is black the other is red 3/8 in long, i have been catching a palr of them and putting in a small babyfood jar and watching them,the red one wants no part of the black. The black wins the battle. He just sits in the bottom and when red tires and falls on him enough the black one mortally wounds him. There are several types of ants here I think argentenia and a small black one that holds his rear end upward all the time,they are very agressive and will grab other ants by the legs . Tennessee is my location,If I seem cruel,sorry

  2. Roberta

    Post author

    Your description of the ant holding its rear end upward sounds like a type of acrobat ant.

  3. Dave

    I witnessed the same thing today. What I thought was ants swarming a food source was in fact a battle of mass proportions. I stared at the mass wondering what they were eating but I could not identify the food source. I brushed a mass of seemingly stationary ants to see what was going on. As I focused in again the scattered ants returned, and each found a pair to lock jaws with. At first I thought it was some kind of mass orgy, though this seemed to contradict what I knew about ant mating behavior. Then, spotting a victorious ant carrying the carcass of it's foe, I realized they were eating EACH OTHER. It was a mass cannibalistic extermination. Some ants joined their brethren in a kill, most dueled mono y mono. Thousands of ants, of apparently the same breed, turned my driveway into a killing field that only nature in it's cold, cruel manner could corporealize.

  4. Sumesh Somanathan

    I have witnessed an Ant fight, actually this is the third within a month. It happened twice in two days. I am fromKerala, India.
    The ants I witnessed fighting each other is Red ones commonly seen in mango trees here. They fight violently with each other, rip the others hands and legs to death. After the fight the area will be full of ant dead bodies, and the most important thing is within minutes the fight get over, other ants clean up the whole dead bodies leaving only legs behind.
    Is this realy a territorial dispute?
    I mean this is happening repeatedly?
    I have taken videos and photos.
    Please clarify.

    Sumeh Somanathan

  5. Ari

    Today I was walking in a pueblo here in Spain and I saw two ants (large,black) fighting viciously. My friend tried to separate them in a call for "peace" with a leave but he could not separate them, they were locked together. Then we started to notice more and more pairs of ants fighting each other. Did we witness an ant war? They looked to be of the same ants..large and black, but I don't know. I have a video of that would help.


  6. Roberta

    Post author


    Yes, worker ants do get into conflicts or "wars." That was very likely what you saw. Sometimes two colonies of the same kind of ant will fight over territory.

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