Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Tiny but Smart

Karina G's picture

 Tiny but Smart

I decided to write about ants because their organization skills are incredible. It is also unbelievable that they have colonized almost every land mass. “Ants thrive in most ecosystems, and may form 15–25% of the terrestrial animal biomass.” (Wikipedia). Ants are almost everywhere. These insects can be compare to a human society. Ants are what is called a “social insect”. They are consider social insects because they live in communities and work together for the benefit of the colony. In the colony they feed and raised their offspring. It is because they are highly organized and work for a common good that they are able to survive and adapt/ modify their habitat. Ants have other characteristics such as their communication method.
Ants are highly organized, generally there are three castes. There is always one queen or several. It varies in species but a queen can live from 5 to 30 years. There are also males; the males’ job is to mate with the queen. Third caste is the worker ants which are all females and tend to live from 1to 3 years. Their job is to protect the queen and young and also enlarge the nest. The worker ants that have to protect the nest are generally bigger. The assign job to each worker ant depends on its structure. They use pheromones and body contact to coordinate their activities.   How do we distinguish them? The queen and males have wings.  How do they distinguish each other? Ants have specific odors. Outsiders or enemies smell different and that is how they know when to attack.


As many other organisms on earth ants have a way to communicate between each other. Communication is essential in order to complete the different task that the colony needs to function properly.  The colony has the task of taking care of every need of the queen, gathering food, digging tunnels and taking care of the eggs. While looking for food, ants lay down a small amount of odor which marks and indicates the proximity of a food source, when the preceding ant finds that mark; it remarks the spot by leaving more odor. They use their long antennae to gather information on direction and intensity of the scent. Their antennae are the most important sense organ; with it they can hear (vibrations), taste, smell and touch. Overtime these markings become pathways that indicate important places. These odors are called pheromones. “The trail pheromone evaporates quickly so other ants stop coming to the site and are not confused by old trails when food is found elsewhere.” (Pheromones) This shows that ants are smart. They know not to leave more scent on the way back to the colony when there is no more food.



 Pheromones are not only used to signal food they are also used to alert others of an emergency situation. This mechanism is very useful when a predator is near and detected by one or few member of the colony, soon the pheromones become stronger and the ants enter into attack and defense mode. Once the battle is over they stop producing the odor and it dissipates quickly allowing a quick recovery and reorganization of their original duties.

However, not all communication is accomplished by the recognition of chemical signals. To their language it comes into play many other means; body movements especially antennas help express different states and moods. Low frequency noises emitted through the respiratory tubes complement and enrich their language.  Also they produced sound by rubbing body parts against each other “Some ants produce sounds by stridulation, using the gaster segments and their mandibles.” (Wikipedia)  We can relate to this when we go out to the street and find performing artists (mime) generally with their faces painted white. These peculiar characters express and even tell stories only using the visual communication of hand gestures and face expressions to add emotion and aid in the process of getting the message across.
It is valuable to mention that not all ants are as sociable. Some species do live in colonies but they hunt alone. Such is the case of the Australian bulldog ants. This is one of the most primitive species. These ants hunt alone using their eyes rather than chemical senses. Other ants attack neighboring colonies to steal their larvae and food. Sometimes they steal the larvae to raise them and use them as worker/slave ants. How far are ants from humans?



·         “Ant” Wikipedia. 2009. Web <> 8 November, 2009
·         “Ant” How Stuff Works. 2009. Web <> 8 November, 2009
·         Pheromones. 2008. Web <> 8 November,2009


Paul Grobstein's picture

Ants and social organization

"How far are ants from humans?"

Interesting question.  They certainly have an effective social organization.  One similar to ours?  One we might learn from?  See Ant Colonies: Social Organization Without a Director?