How Ants Communicate Through Pheromones

How Ants Communicate Through Pheromones

Every time we encounter the word “communication”, we usually associate it with “speech” that often times; we forget that communication itself is broad in its sense. It may vary by means of the process or mode, by different environments, and as well as by different species. Clearly, it is through “language” that separates human communication from animal communication. But did you know that even though humans have an advanced form of communication, there are some animals which humans have something in common?  One example of this are the Ants. Yes, you read that right.

Communication between individuals is essential in any organized society, and for ants — whose colonies have been known to contain as many as 306 million worker ants — this is no different. However, whereas human societies most notably use sound, sight, and touch to communicate between individuals, ant societies also make great use of chemical signals called pheromones.

Ants, they could be very VERY tiny in size but, they got some amazing characteristics that we might not seem to realize, just yet. One of which is their total amount of biomass that is roughly identical to people’s total amount of biomass on earth. It is also believed by some that ants and humans share a lot of commonalities more than what we think.

May it be from the delegation of tasks, defending of hives and by stocking up supplies, these are also done by the ant colony in unity. Just like the old saying, “to be able for a team to work well, they have to communicate”; similarly these ants achieve their goals by group through communication. But how do they communicate? You may ask. Do ants speak to each other? The answer is yes! They do. Ants communicate with each other through pheromones (chemical scent). Pheromones are detected at the tips of the ants super sensitive antennae, the left and right antennae tell the ant which way to turn with the varying pheromone strength. Ants that have missing or damaged antennae become much disorientated. (


Although ants are frustrating when they get into your home or when you’re having a picnic, ants do help the environment. They are social insects, which mean they live in large colonies or groups. Depending on the species, ant colonies can consist of millions of ants.

There are three kinds of ants in a colony: The queen, the female workers, and males. The queen and the males have wings, while the workers don’t have wings. The queen is the only ant that can lay eggs. The male ant’s job is to mate with future queen ants and they do not live very long afterwards. Once the queen grows to adulthood, she spends the rest of her life laying eggs! Depending on the species, a colony may have one queen or many queens.

Ant colonies also have soldier ants that protect the queen, defend the colony, gather or kill food, and attack enemy colonies in search for food and nesting space. If they defeat another ant colony, they take away eggs of the defeated ant colony. When the eggs hatch, the new ants become the “slave” ants for the colony. Some jobs of the colony include taking care of the eggs and babies, gathering food for the colony and building the anthills or mounds (


Aside from the general idea that pheromones do – gives signal to other ants what they must do or must know, let us dig in to the different pheromones ants use. To name a few, ants use pheromones to:

  • recruit to food sources;
  • mark the way to new nest sites during emigration;
  • aggregate;
  • mark territories;
  • recognize nestmates;
  • “call”- the release of pheromones by reproductive females to attract males; and
  • induce nestmates to defend the nest (alarm)

An entire colony of different species understands an about ten to twenty different pheromone perfumes and each of which represents a “chemical word” that sends them the signal on what they must do, depending on what is required.

Biologist E.O. Wilson discovered in the 1960’s that the organic chemical for each pheromone varies tremendously depending on what signal it entails. Ants taste and smell a substance that evaporates off the chemical laid down by another ant. Wilson observed in slow motion films that ants do this by moving their antennae from side to side.


Ants eat their food according to their type. When worker ants leave their nest to search for food, they leave behind a trail of pheromones — like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to help you find your way home. After an ant finds food, it turns around and follows a different pheromone trail back to the nest. While it travels home, it lays down more pheromone on the trail, reinforcing the trail. When other worker ants come across the pheromone trail, they may abandon their own random search for food to follow the pheromone trail directly to the food source.


During defenses, ants also send signal to their co-ants to raise awareness of the existence of their foe. Certain types, such as alarm pheromones, produce a “releaser effect”, which induces a quick response and may be used to tell other ants to evacuate a dangerous area such as an approaching lawnmower. For example, when a spider approaches an ant will release alarm pheromones that alert all the other ants. Ants may also discharge alarm pheromones as a result from being diverted from their work, e.g. heavy human steps. Releaser pheromones are also used to mark territory. As the chemical deposited dries, it signals to other species members of the territory’s occupant.

Now what do you think will happen if an ant gets squashed? When an ant is squashed it releases a different pheromone that warns the others of potential danger. These pheromones also help ants to distinguish between different family members, nest mates and strangers.

If you will realize, ants have their queens that directs and leads them. These queen ants also have their special set of pheromones that let workers know their current status, and whether or not they need to begin raising new princesses and drones. Some queens release pheromones that induce workers to kill larval forms that would become reproductive, or that prevent virgin queens from shedding their wings. (Holldobler and Maschwitz 1965, as cited in LD Hansen and JH Klotz, Carpenter Ants of The United States and Canada).


Other pheromones create a “primer effect” that entices other ants for actions. Such pheromones are useful in mating rituals and only affect ants of the opposite sex. Primer pheromones can send signals to the endocrine system, to make appropriate changes, for instance ovulation required for successful mating.

In some ants, such as fire ants, a female will only mate with one male before departing the “nuptial flight” to start a new colony. Harvester ants and other species will mate with five to 15 drones before calling it quits, Tschinkel told LiveScience.

During the less common female-calling syndrome, breeding females come up to the surface of their natal colonies and release pheromones to attract males for mating, which occurs on the ground. In both syndromes, males often die shortly after mating. (Andrea Thompson, LiveScience).

With pheromones, the behavior of these ants changes in different time of need. Just like when humans are directed through human communication, they can easily know how and what to respond to these signals. Ants do not separate themselves from humans and might actually be considered as more communicatively competent than them.

In times of shortcomings like having defects on their antennaes, they will likely to dysfunction like how humans struggle to communicate when they have handicaps such as being deaf or being mute, these will be hindrances to communication. Fortunately, even with these difficulties humans find ways how to communicate in sign languages for deafs and mutes. For the ants, they can also still communicate through motion, touch and through their visuals. It’s just that their pheromones are their powerful mode of communication.

Nevertheless, the power of communication doesn’t hinder any species from being united and unstoppable whenever it is used properly. It doesn’t matter if it is through language, movements, touch and or through the pheromones, as long as these species understand each other, progress will be eminent and their efficiency as a group will be enhanced and developed.

With these fundamental knowledge on how ants communicate, humans can learn a lot from them from taking orders efficiently, by serving their queens tirelessly and by defending each other tremendously and bravely. These ants, so little in their sizes it may seem, but a lot of things can be learned from them if only they will be given a lot more attention and reflect to them.

So the next time you will encounter some ants trailing over your stock of food, running around alarmed when you started bugging them, realize that they work their pheromones any time of the day. Study them and maybe they might teach you when you stop taking them for granted and if you do, you will never see these ants the same way before ever again!

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