Skip to content

There's a question for the Consult-Ant this week. (The “Consult-Ant” started on the Leaping from the Box website, where I answered 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.)

Question:  I have an ant question!
I have been observing common ants foraging and wonder what range their senses have to understand their foraging tactics. Presumably they are hoping to discover a food source.
Mike.

Answer:

Wouldn't it be cool to be able to slip into a creature like an ant and experience the world through their senses?

Unfortunately, we aren't quite there yet. Scientists are making some breakthroughs in understanding how ants perceive the world, but there are still many, many questions. To make things even more complicated, it appears that different species of ants have different sensory abilities, so there isn't just one answer as to how ants' senses work.

Although ants have a variety of senses, most ants probably use a combination of vision and olfaction to find their food. Let's explore those two in more detail.

1. Vision

Without even knowing how ants' eyes work, we can see there are big differences in the structure.

For example, this ant has massive eyes.

(Gigantiops destructor Photographer: Michael Branstetter Date Uploaded: 07/20/2009 Copyright: Copyright AntWeb.org, 2000-2009. Licensing: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 (cc-by-sa-3.0) Creative Commons License)

This huntress has normal-sized eyes.


Army ants have reduced eyes or are even blind.

(Public domain photograph of Eciton burchelli by Alex Wild)

For ants with well-developed eyes, we would expect that since they are small and close to the ground, perhaps they can't see far. In fact, (2004) found Myrmica sabuleti ants could discriminate objects 15 cm away, but only 10 cm above. On the other hand, bulldog ants in the genus Mymecia have excellent vision and have been reported to be able to see a meter away.

How do ants use vision for foraging? Not only can they spot prey, but also according to Hölldobler and Wilson (1990) foraging worker ants can learn/remember to return to places where they found food in the past using visual cues. Researchers have found some species of ants can orient to food sources using the the skyline (Graham and Cheng, 2009), or polarized light (for example Krapp 2007, Wehner et al. 2014). So, they may see farther than we might expect.

Related:

2. Sense of smell - Olfaction

Blind ants -- or those that forage at night -- may use their sense of smell to find food. Insects detect odors largely with their antennae.

How do the antennae work? Within the antennae are odor receptors that can bind with specific free-floating molecules. When the correct molecule bumps into and binds with the receptor, a nerve associated with it sends a signal to the mushroom bodies in the insect's brain, where it is processed or identified.

From how far away can ants detect smells? It really depends on how far the odor molecules can travel. I wasn't able to find much about detection distances for ant antennae, but male moth antennae can detect female moth pheromones from 300 feet away.

What kinds of things can they smell? Zwiebel at al. (2012) found over 400 different odor receptors in each of two species of ants: a carpenter ant, Camponotus floridanus, and the Indian jumping ant, Harpegnathos saltator. Using an unusual bio-assay involving frog eggs they discovered that although the receptors were equally numerous in both species, the odors detected by the receptors were not the same. For example, the jumping ant could detect a component of anise (a spice), whereas the carpenter ant could detect an odor from cooked pork. Presumably those differences reflect differences in their biology or environment.

According to the same article, ants also have gustatory receptors, which distinguish taste (among other things). In addition, they have ionotropic glutamate receptors that can detect toxins and poisons. This can be important for seed-harvesting ants and leaf cutter ants because plants may contain toxins that will either harm the ant larvae, or the fungus that leaf cutter ants garden for food.

3. Scouting for Food?

"Presumably they are hoping to discover a food source."

Yes, when they are outside the nest, by-and-large foraging ants are looking and smelling for food. (Although a few may be scoping out potential enemies as well.)

Again, the process varies depending on what kind of ant you have. Some ants are solitary hunters. Each ant hunts and brings food back on its own, whether seeds or insect prey. In some species, special scouts search for food and return to the nest once they find it. They recruit other foragers to retrieve the food. Often the strategy will be intermediary, and depend on the size or quantity of food on a given day.

Although most ants are omnivores, what constitutes food will also vary and those differences will change how ants detect it. For example, ants that tend aphids or leafhoppers may locate potential food by smelling honeydew that has dropped to the ground under the plant where the insects are feeding.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that how an ant finds food will be limited by the range of its senses, but right now we don't have a complete picture of what those limits are. Personally, I would not be surprised if we discover that certain ants have some amazing abilities that we haven't even thought to look for yet.

_________

Hopefully, that answers your question at least in part.

Does anyone else have anything to add to help Mike?

There's a question for the Consult-Ant this week. (The “Consult-Ant” started on the Leaping from the Box website, where I answered 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.)

Question:

I sucked an ant up in a homemade bug vacuum and then transported it over a mile from its home.  Will it survive if I let it go?  Do they have to find their way to their original nest in order to survive?

Anon

Answer:

First of all, can a single ant make it on its own? The answer is no, unless that ant is a queen during certain parts of her life cycle. A single worker ant on its own doesn't have much of a chance of survival.

So, could the ant navigate back to its nest if displaced? Different ants use different cues to navigate when outside the nest. Some ants can use cues from polarized light or the position of the sun. Potentially an ant that uses visual cues might be able to re-orient itself over short distances to find its nest.

On the other hand, some ants rely heavily on chemical trails to move back and forth to their colony. Think of army ants, some of which are blind. In that case, the ant would have to wander around until it accidentally ran across a trail. The likelihood this would happen decreases with distance from the nest.

At the distance of over a mile, the chances the ant will be re-united with its nestmates are non-existent. There's a tiny chance it could join a nearby colony, but it is not likely.

What about a flying insect, like a honey bee? Honey bees would stand a much better chance. They have been shown to be able to fly up to five miles from their hive while foraging. They navigate by visual cues. An experienced forager bee might be able to re-orient from a greater distance than an ant on the ground could.

Please let us know if you have any further questions.

Anyone else have any thoughts?

 

Photograph of ant in a bug sucker by Karen Gibson, used with permission.

2

There's a question for the Consult-Ant this week. (The “Consult-Ant” started on the Leaping from the Box website, where I answered 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.)

Question:

This comes from Ol Donyo Orok Hill in Southern Kenya (on the border with Tanzania) at an altitude of around 4500 feet.  I found these ants all dead at the entrance of a hole (what I assumed to be their nest).  This was far enough away from any human habitation, farming, or other activity (other than some goat herding) that I ruled out the use of insecticide.  There were a few more dead, spread out of the the space of about 1 square foot, but the attached photo shows the vast majority of them in a small, dense pile.  Some of their exoskeletons were coming apart (especially the tips of the abdomens), but it didn't look like ruptures from predation, rather just decay.

The stem of the plant in the photo is Solanum incanum (Poison/Sodom Apple), which is both indigenous to the area and poisonous to humans and domestic stock, but I doubt that ants would eat something familiar to them which if it was poisonous.  I don't know what species of ant they are, but the closest I can get is some Pachycondyla sp. (though I'm really not sure).

Do you know what may have caused this seemingly sudden mass die-off?

Answer:

Taking a look at Ants of Africa for ants in the genus Pachychondyla, your identification seems in the right ballpark. Are there any experts out there who can tell us more about what kind of ants these are?

As for what has happened, when I've seen similar piles after a couple of events. Most commonly, either the ant colony had a battle with a neighboring colony or there has been some adverse weather that has caused a mass die off.

If the battle was with a neighboring colony of ants, not all the causalities will be torn apart, particularly if the damage was caused by stings or chemical weapons.

Flooding of portions of the nest during heavy rains can also cause big die offs in species that nest underground.

Readers:  Do you have any suggestions why these ants might have died?

Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

2

We have a question for the Consult-Ant* this week.

I have an ant question.
 
I was curious about ant eyesight. Not about their color vision but more specifically their quality of vision in the dark. Is it better or worse than a human's night vision?

This is a great question!

The first thing to remember about ants is that they perceive the world in vastly different ways then we humans do. They produce a number of different chemicals and communicate in ways that we can only dimly appreciate. Let's not forget, some ants are completely blind and they get around just fine.

That said, ants do usually live in dark tunnels, either underground or in wood. Many species forage at night, either all the time or during certain seasons. They are able to find their way around in the dark.

camponotus-festinatus1

For example, this carpenter ant lives in the hot desert. It forages at night and is rarely seen during the day.

To study how ants see at night, scientists have been looking closely that the anatomy of  the eyes of ants.

This figure from Invertebrate Vision, edited by Eric Warrant, Dan-Eric Nilsson shows that dark-adapted eyes of invertebrates are structurally different from light-adapted ones.

 

Ajay Narendra and his colleagues (2011) have been studying Australian bull ants (Narendra has photographs of bull ants ) that are active at night and comparing them to day-active species. They found that ants that were active at night had different eye measurements and eye structures, both within a given species (that is active both during the day and night) and between related species. The eye area, facet size, and ocelli (the smaller simple eyes at the top of the head) size, etc. were larger in night-active ants.  Reid et al. discusses more specific information about how the ants use their specialized eyes to see polarized light and landmarks during navigation at night.

Have I danced around your original question long enough? Comparing humans to ants is difficult because in a lot of ways it is comparing apples to oranges, plus our understanding of what other animals perceive is limited. Nevertheless, I'm going out on a limb. All these structural differences suggest that certain ants can be quite specialized for night vision. Based on that evidence, it would seem that ants are probably just as capable, if not more capable of night vision than unassisted humans. Of course humans are capable of inventing and using sophisticated devices to assist our night vision. In that case, humans win hands down.

What do you think about night vision in ants?

For more information:

Ajay Narendra, Samuel F. Reid, Birgit Greiner, Richard A. Peters, Jan M. Hemmi, Willi A. Ribi and Jochen Zeil.  (2011) Caste-specific visual adaptations to distinct daily activity schedules in Australian Myrmecia ants. Proc. R. Soc. B.  278:  1141-1149. (free .pdf available)

Reid, S.F., A. Narendra, J.M. Hemmi and J. Zeil. (2011). Polarised skylight and the landmark panorama provide night-active bull ants with compass information during route following. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 214: 363-370. (free .pdf available)

Wild About Ants post about color vision in ants

 

(* 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.)