Are ants telepathic?

27 March 2018

Ant

Ant near a white flower

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Question

How do ants know if their queen dies, are they telepathic?

Answer

We had this question sent in from Caitlin in Nottingham. Chris Smith put it to ant expert Chris Pull, from Royal Holloway University. Material scientist, Rachel Oliver, then had a colony query of her own. 

Chris P - Well, to be honest, it’s not a far cry from what they’re able to do. I guess if telepathy is being able to sense someone’s emotions or their internal state of what they’re thinking, ants kind of do have a way of being able to do that. They use chemical smells - pheromones and queen’s emit what we call a queen pheromone in the colony. What this pheromone does is it tells the workers in the colony that she is the queen. And it has another role as well so it acts as an infertility sort of signal so it suppresses the ovaries of the workers and stops them from reproducing. So, if the queen dies, she obviously stops emitting that signal and that’s how they are able to tell whether or not the queen is present any more and the workers themselves can start laying eggs and try to get some reproduction.

Chris S -  Is that what happens: if the queen is lost for whatever reason, will a new queen emerge from amongst the ranks if you like?

Chris P - It really depends on the species, but in your average ant then generally no, so the queen once she’s lost, she’s lost. And in bumble bees as well, once she’s lost, she’s lost.

Chris S - So what happens to them? What happens to the colony, does it just sort of go into anarchy or something?

Chris P - Again, it depends on the species. If it’s a species where workers are able to still lay eggs, then they can lay male eggs. They haven’t been fertilised so they’re not able to make males or females but they can lay male eggs which will disperse and mate with another queen, so it’s an opportunity for, if the queen dies, a second resort for the workers to get some reproduction in.

Chris S - Ah. So the genes live on even though the colony itself maybe the end of the road for them? Rachel?

Rachel - If they’ve made some great structure that they live in, in the end does everybody in that one die and then that’s left empty? Is it just left forever or does another team of ants move in?

Chris P - As I said, the workers can only produce males because they haven’t been mated and without the queen there producing more workers then, obviously, the colony eventually just dwindles; the workers die off and that residence is empty. In honey bees you might get colonies moving in and trying to utilise that space. In ant colonies, because they’re just made out of soil they’ll eventually collapse or another colony might use it.

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