Mad About Science: Ants, ants and more ants

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Summer in North Idaho can mean only one thing:


Oh, no, sorry. I mean:

Bad traffic.

Dang, zero-for-two! Let’s try:


OK, OK, OK. I give up. No victory sip of soda for me.

Probably a good thing, as there’s a trail of ants going up and down the bottle.

Ants: the surest way to know that your child is lying about not still having any Easter candy stashed in their closet. Ants are unique little creatures, ones we mostly hate. They don’t do us a whole lot of good other than bite us and make a mess. Despite this, they remain a very active specimen for study among myrmecologists (people who study ants) and entomologists (people who study insects).

Ants are famous for one thing, and that’s working in an intense level of unity. Ever wonder how they do that? It’s not telepathy, but it’s a form of extrasensory information… for humans, at least.

Ants are equipped with tiny glands designed to excrete pheromones wherever they go. The pheromones change scent based on what the ant is doing. It has different pheromones for food than it does for alerting other ants of an invader.

Why such an odd form of communication?

Don’t get me wrong, ants are smart. Like, freakishly smart. They’re just smart in a different way from your dog. Ants don’t have the ability to talk, and I’m guessing that in a hive of several hundred thousand or more, communication via movement can be pretty open to interpretation. Instead, they’ve adapted to use pheromones to cut out any confusion and get straight to the point.

Have you ever seen a large airport or university campus or military base where they use colored lines on the floor to show you how to get to certain areas in a no-nonsense sort of way?

There’s no confusion about where that bright yellow line will take you.

It’s the same principle as ants using pheromone trails.

If you’re wondering how they pick up these pheromone trails, they use their antennae, which can swivel on their head like human satellite dishes to pinpoint a signal.

Ants also need to know and remember a lot, despite not having a lot of space to do so. Most workers only live for 3 years if they’re lucky, so they don’t have time to attend a four-year university in Antioch. The less they need to remember about communication, the more likely they’ll excel at other things like building, brooding young and foraging.

Some ants even have stingers, which can inject things ranging from formic acid (ow!) to piperidine, the stuff that makes pepper spicy (double ow!). When ants equipped to sting start stinging you, they release a pheromone that signals all other ants in the area to start stinging you as well. Africanized killer bees do this too, as it likely evolved from the same ancestor.

If you pick a fight with an ant in a bar, you’re going to have to fight all of his friends, too.

Also, you may want to let the proprietor know that he has an alcoholic ant problem.

Ants are almost on par with humans when it comes to their ability to alter their environment. Many insects need the perfect environment to flourish, but not ants. If it’s not perfect, the ants will make it perfect. Ants have been observed to build dams to stop water from flooding their nests. They’re experts at understanding airflow and creating antificial air conditioning throughout the hive. They’ve even been observed to build towers out of their own bodies to get food. Army ants are legendary for this.

Ants may be great architects, awesome warriors and one of the most prevalent and enduring creatures on the planet (inhabiting virtually every landmass with the exception of Antarctica.), but they have their own set of predators that keep them in check. Usually, this comes in the form of other ants. Humans are another predator of ants, but not in the sense that we eat them. We smash, burn and poison them into the great dark beyond because they are a nuisance to us.

Venus flytraps have been observed tricking several ants into their waiting maws using pheromone trickery. The plant secretes a pheromone similar to the, “Food here!” pheromone that nearby ants secrete, then tricks them into walking right into their doom.

One of the most ghoulish of all predators has to be the cordyceps fungus. We’ve talked about cordyceps before. The spores infect an ant’s brain and tells the ant to run back home, so that the fungus may erupt from its body and infect the colony with spores, bringing about a swift antpocalypse.

We’ve heard that part before. What we haven’t heard is that the ants have been observed to do several very complicated things to counteract the cordyceps fungus.

The first thing they’ve been seen to do is send a death squad of infertile males to attack the infected ant and drag it off into the jungle, where they will all be inevitably zombified and die. A literal suicide squad.

If that doesn’t happen and the hive becomes infected, the ants will seal off and quarantine the infected portion of the hive, literally burying the infected alive.

If that fails, and the fungus manages to circumvent the quarantine, the hive will either be completely destroyed or completely abandoned.

Some CDC protocols for apocalyptic outbreaks match the behavior of infected ant colonies rather frighteningly. Luckily, we haven’t had to test any of them out, yet.

If you’re suffering from an ant infestation, it’s important to be able to identify what, where and why.

What kind of ants are they? Are they really ants, or are they termites? Can this species of ant do serious damage to the infrastructure of your home? If you’re not sure, get help!

Where are they coming from? If you see a superhighway of ants rolling through a crack in your wall but nowhere else, chances are that’s the only place they’re coming from. Stop them there!

Why are they here? If the ants are here because you have a bag of half-melted candy in your closet, they’re probably going to go away if you dispose of the candy, unless they found other food in the process of finding that candy.

If you’re trying to get rid of them, you can always call a professional. If it’s just a trail, it’s probably not worth throwing down the money. If we’re talking termites hailing out of your walls, it’s time to call the gas man.

If some ants are just a nuisance, you can nail them with a quick, cheap fix. Diatomaceous Earth, funky powder that looks like something spilling out of Tony Montana’s desk, can be found in any garden section of any store. If you can, buy the food-grade stuff (it’s safe to ingest, not that you should).

Read the directions and apply! Be sure to wear disposable or washable gloves and a faceguard/dust mask/respirator while using it. While the food grade stuff is safe to ingest, there’s no point in letting it in your body if you don’t have to.

Diatomaceous Earth is a mechanical insecticide, not a chemical one. It’s made from the fossils of diatomes, ancient microscopic shelled sea creatures. The product is designed so that when anything with an exoskeleton waddles through a treated area, the stuff will cling to it and pull the moisture right out of it, essentially dehydrating the creature to death in less than 18 hours. Boric acid, which can be harmful to pets and humans like, can take up to 72 hours to kill.

Ant you glad you read this article?

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