On the chemistry of ant excreta

Dear AntBlog:

I am Eva Rogge, R&D Engineer at Europlasma, located in Belgium, Europe. We are specialized in nanocoatings, for example to provide water repellent and oil repellent properties to a material. Our coatings can be applied on all kinds of materials: textiles, plastics, electronics.

I have been contacted by a person who makes electronic apparatus used outdoors. He has noticed that ants are attracted by the electromagnetic fields. They come into the apparatus, live there, and produce excreta. Because of these excreta, short circuiting of the devices occur.

The idea is now to apply a nanocoating on these electronic components to protect them against the excreta of ants. To investigate if this is achievable, I was wondering if you have any idea of the main components of the feces of ants.

Kind Regards, Eva

Dear Eva:

Ant "feces" is not feces in the same sense as for us mammals. The diet of adult ants is mainly liquid, containing only the tiniest solid particles, so there is only a small component of indigestible solids. Further, the insect equivalent of kidneys, called Malpighian tubules, empty into the rectum rather than into a separate bladder as in our species, so the nitrogenous waste or urine, in the form of uric acid crystals suspended in a fluid that is mainly water, is mixed with the feces. This results in a light brown (café au lait color, if you will), thick suspension of mixed waste, excreted as droplets through the cloaca (anus) at the tip of the ant's abdomen. In sum, I would say that the general description of the ant excreta is a suspension composed primarily of uric acid crystals and very small particles of insoluble carbohydrates (cellulose, chitin) and cuticular (exoskeleton) proteins in a polar liquid.

In nature, ants typically use latrine areas for the deposition of this waste, apart from where they feed and rest and rear their brood. An internet search will reveal that there is a fair bit of literature on ants infesting electrical circuitry, but this is mostly unsatisfying, in that the studies do not really elucidate either why the ants accumulate on electrical circuitry, or why they soil the premises while there.

Finally, I would suggest that it would be good for you to team up with an analytical chemist, so that more precise details of the chemistry of ant excreta could be determined.

James C. Trager & the Ask Ant Team

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