Ant behavior: June 2011 Archives

I've been feeding some ants on my desk which I believe to be Tapinoma sessile. I tracked them quite a long way to the front door of my house. Recently I discovered that some of the ants are coming from the opposite direction from my window which is halfway around the house. Is there a way to tell if they are from the same colony?
I've read that T. sessile is very tolerant of other ants so I don't expect any fighting. I tried to see if the ants coming from one way would go the other way. This leads me to my next question, would ants from the same species but different colonies be able to recognize each other's pheronomes as if it were their own?


Hi Rex!

Thanks for contacting us at AntAsk! To tell whether ants are from the same colony, I would suggest that you carefully collect one ant from one of the groups and place it in the other group. Of course, if fighting takes place, the ants were from different colonies. But also if the ants start inspecting each other carefully with their antennae and might even pull each other at the mandibles, this suggests they are from a different colony. If the ants act as nothing has happend and the experimentally introduced individual just runs with the others, they might indeed be from the same colony.

Researchers often use behavioral observations to determine colony boundaries. Other tools are the analysing cuticular hydrocarbons and/or genetic markers such as microsatellites. Social insects such as ants use low-volatile chemicals (usually hydrocarbons) that are present on the cuticle to distinguish nestmates from foreign individuals. If the hydrocarbons of two ant colonies are very similar, which might be due to the fact that the colonies are related to some extend, ants might have a hard time to determine who is a nestmate and who is not.

I hope this answers your questions!
All the best,
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team


I live in Northwest Arkansas, United States. We have been observing an odd behavior - large black ants traveling in groups of maybe 12-24 individuals. They are in roaming "packs" rather than walking in narrow trails.

My best guess is that they are black carpenter ant workers - they are probably about 9 to 11 mm long, have very large heads and mandibles, and cream colored hairs on their abdomens. There is some difference in size and proportion within the packs - some have huge square heads, and some look more "normal."

So, are they patrolling for food? Trying to set up new colonies? (It has been an extremely rainy season and there is a lot of dead wood from an ice storm two or three years ago.) Something else? Why the loose, round packs rather than single-file lines?

The attached image is of one that a pack killed (or rather, tortured by two ants holding its middle legs and pulling them taut while others bit its head for several minutes, then dragged a foot to the side and left for dead). I assume that it was territorial behavior within the same species--do you think so? That is the only time I've observed an "execution" by a pack.

Would love to hear your expertise on the matter!



Thanks for contacting us at AntAsk! We asked another ant expert, James Trager, for some help with this and here is what he had to say:

"The picture, sadly, does not help me. It looks vaguely like a mutillid or perhaps a Polyergus queen, rather than a conspecific of the pack-roaming ants as the writer suggests. The message strongly suggests Camponotus pennsylvanicus to me. They do sometimes recruit in (but usually linear) groups, but this roaming pack behavior sounds unusual, as the writer evidently recognized. I'd like to see it, and could probably interpret it better if so. If it were recruitment to a new nest site, I would expect them to be carrying brood, but there is no mention of that, so I can only guess that they are recruiting to a rich food source, such as a tree full of honeydew-secreting insects."

As James pointed out, it is impossible to tell what species of ant is in the picture as it is of poor quality. As he has mentioned, it could be a mutillid. Click here to find out more about these wasps that are sometimes mistaken for ants.

All the best,
James Trager (guest expert), Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

Hello there, my name is Svetoslav, I am from Bulgaria and I study sociology, but not for this I am a fan of the ants. However, I have this question: What about ants individuality? We know so many interesting facts about their working together. But how would a single one act in different situations. What about ants and freedom?? If this is does not seem stupid enough, what about ants and spare time, do they do anything just for fun?

Dear Svetoslav,

Great questions! I will start by saying that for the most part, little is known.

For an interesting talk that addresses some of these questions, be sure to watch Dr. Deborah Gordon's (Stanford University) TED talk:

There have been a few experiments done that show that how an individual ant behaves alone can be quite different than when with colony members. In addition, several researchers have done work with wasps and bees that address these same kind of questions. If you are really interested in these questions, I would suggest to start looking through the social insect literature.

Also, you could try setting up your own "backyard" experiments!

Best of luck,
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

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