How Do Ants Communicate?

Something strange happened that made me wonder how ants communicate. One day after dinner, I was about to clear away the leftover food but was interrupted by my favorite TV program. An hour later when I came back to the dinner table, I found ants all over the food. I traced the line of ants down one table leg to the floor, then to the nearest wall a few feet away, and finally to tiny hole at a corner of the dining room.

For an ant, traveling a long distance from the home base and climbing up the table to harvest the food are no easy feats. How do they know the food is up there in the first place? Without consulting an entomologist, I venture to reason what I saw.

The fact that all the ants follow a single line of direction to get to the food shows that they are highly organized creatures. Their eyesights maybe very limited so they must follow one another rather than going out in all directions. Most likely they don’t even see the food on the table far away. This eliminates the possibility that the sense of sight is involved.

We all know that food smells, either fresh or decayed. Many animals like dogs have a much higher sense of smell than humans. I don’t know how well an ant can detect food through smell. Obviously, they can from a distance without seeing it. In addition, the smell of the food indicates how far and in what direction the ants should go to fetch it.

A second possibility is through hearing. When we sit down near a table or food counter, we usually find a couple of ants wandering around. Since ants don’t drink alcohol like those intoxicated humans in the streets, they wander for the single purpose of finding food. These are the specialized food scouts. When they find food, they will emit a sound that is beyond the human hearing frequency. This sound will direct the rest of the gang to march in line to the next meal, further guided by the smell of the food. Now the scouts are smart creatures. They don’t call for the army when the food is being consumed. That is why we never see a column of ants coming while we eat. Only after we have finished and the food is left undisturbed on the table, the scouts will issue a fetch order.

A third possibility is that the food scouts secrete something to mark the path to the food, just like many animals that urinate to mark their territories. This requires other ants nearby to pick up and relay the scent of the markings all the way back to the home base before an army is sent out to harvest the food. In my case where the column of ants travels from afar in just one hour up the table to the leftover food, it seems physically impossible within the time period for the ants to relate the message and to reach the food.

In conclusion, the second possibility best explains how ants communicate. They do it via sound and smell for they have great sensory organs. Now that I have used common sense to answer my curiosity about ants, do we have any entomologist to offer an expert opinion?

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