Ants may be small, but they’re a sophisticated species. They build intricate homes complete with sanitary facilities, take medicine to fight off infection, and teach each other things. Here are 15 surprising facts about the insects:
1. THEY'RE NOT ALWAYS HARD WORKERS.
Despite ants’ reputation as dedicated workers, not every ant in the nest pulls her own weight. In one study of a nest of the North American species Temnothorax rugatulus, up to a quarter of the ants were inactive throughout the observation period. For reasons the scientists could not elucidate, these ants specialized in inactivity.
2. THEY LOVE JUNK FOOD.
In 2014, a group of scientists left hot dogs, potato chips, and other junk food on the sidewalks of New York City to see how much human food ants were eating. After a day, they came back and weighed the food to see how much had disappeared. They found that along just one urban corridor, ants and other insects might be eating as much as 2100 pounds of junk food trash per year.
3. SOMETIMES THEY RAISE BUTTERFLY LARVAE.
The Alcon Blue butterfly sometimes fools Myrmica ants into raising its little ones. The ants occasionally mistake a faux-scent on caterpillar larva as evidence of its belonging to the nest, so they’ll pick it up and carry it home, providing food and protection for the foreign species as a kind of cuckold.
4. THEY MAKE TOILETS FOR THEIR NESTS.
Ants don’t just go anywhere. Some ants dump their waste just outside their nest, in a pile called a “kitchen midden.” Others, as scientists recently discovered, relieve themselves in specific spots within their nest. Even if they dispose of dead ants and other waste outside, black garden ants keep their frass (poop) in corners of their nests that are like little ant latrines.
5. THEY TAKE MEDICINE WHEN THEY'RE SICK.
In a recent study, researchers found that when ants are exposed to a deadly fungus, they eat food laced with free radicals to fight off the infection. The free radicals damage the fungus cells, increasing the ants’ survival chances.
6. THEY CAN TAKE DOWN PREY MANY TIMES THEIR SIZE.
The stinging Leptogenys ant mostly eats millipedes that can be several inches long. It takes dozens of ants to bring down a millipede, and the process is pretty intense to watch.
7. THEY MIGHT FEEL SELF-DOUBT.
A 2015 study of black garden ants found that ants may be aware of when they don’t know something. When the ants in the study were put in an unpredictable situation, they were less likely to leave a pheromone trail that would encourage their fellow ants to follow them. This, the researchers argue, suggests that the insects know when they're not sure they're headed in the right direction.
8. THEY CAN WALK ON WATER.
The reason ants don’t drown in the rain? They’re so light that they don’t break the surface tension of water. They just walk on top of it.
9. THEY HAVE SOME OF THE FASTEST REFLEXES IN THE ANIMAL WORLD.
10. MALES DON'T HAVE FATHERS.
Male ants come from unfertilized eggs and only have one set of chromosomes, which they receive from their mother. Female ants, on the other hand, are the result of egg fertilization and have two sets of chromosomes, one from their mother and one from their father.
11. THEY COUNT THEIR STEPS.
In windy desert environments, ants count their steps to find their way back to the nest after foraging. The 2006 study that proved this theory involved making ants’ strides shorter and longer in the lab through methods like cutting the tips of ants’ legs off and super-gluing others’ feet to stilts.
12. THEY'VE BEEN TO SPACE.
In 2014, a group of ants arrived on the International Space Station as part of a study to see how they would fare in microgravity. Despite the unusual environment, they were still able to work together to explore their territory.
13. THEY'RE THE ONLY NON-HUMAN ANIMALS THAT TEACH.
In a 2006 study, researchers found that Temnothorax albipennis ants lead each other to food, teaching other ants the path. They argued that it was the first observed instance of a non-human animal teaching another.
14. THEY CAN ACT AS PESTICIDES.
A review of 70 studies on the use of weaver ants to protect crops finds the insects are effective at driving away pests from citrus and other tree crops. Weaver ants live in nests they build in trees and eat other insects. The study found that orchards with weaver ant nests had less plant damage and greater crop yields.
15. THEY CAN CLONE THEMSELVES.
An Amazonian ant called Mycocepurus smithii reproduces through cloning. No male of the species has ever been found. Instead, the entire colony is made up of clones of the queen.