Ants find food using their exceptionally keen sense of smell.
Their odor receptors, which are located on their antennae, are better than those of other insects by four or five times. Thus, ants can detect food from quite a distance. This is how an ant roaming outside a home finds its way to the uncovered bowl of rice in the kitchen.
The responsibility of finding food for the colony is placed on the worker ants. These are the sterile female ants in the colony who do not participate in reproduction. Therefore, a worker ant’s main job is to wander randomly foraging for food.
While all ants have a similar diet, different species tend to have different food preferences. Thus, different worker ants keep an eye out for the type of food that their colony prefers. It could be sugar, starch, small insects, small dead animals, or even other ants.
When Do Ants Go Looking for Food?
The time of day that workers ants go foraging for food depends on the climatic season. During spring and summer, when the temperature is relatively hot, ants go foraging between sunset and midnight. They look for food within a 100-yard radius of their nest.
During winter, ants are mostly inactive due to cold temperatures. However, if they are active, they tend to forage for food and moisture at night. Their favorite places to look for food during winter are inside homes, especially for the colonies that have built nests indoors looking for warmth.
How Do Ants Find Sugary Foods?
Ants are very fond of sweet things such as sugar because they provide them with energy. Therefore, they are always on the lookout for it. Just like other insects, ants use a special structure known as chemosensory to detect sugars.
This chemical sensing ability enables ants to pick up chemical substances in the environment. Therefore, when there is sugar nearby, even in small quantities, the ant is able to pick up and locate the chemicals that are found in those sugars.
These chemicals are identified as smells by the olfactory receptors that are found on the antennae of an ant. The ant then follows and finds the sugar.
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What Do Ants Do When They Find Food?
The main purpose of finding food is to bring it back to the colony for the queen and other reproductive ants to feed. Therefore, when a single worker ant finds food that is too heavy to ferry alone, it alerts other worker ants so they can foster teamwork.
Ants are very organized insects with an established system of communication. Thus, to alert other worker ants that food has been located, ants rely on a hormone known as pheromone.
How Do Ants Use Pheromones When Finding Food?
As mentioned above, pheromones are chemical scents that ants use to communicate with each other. When leaving their nest for foraging, worker ants leave a trail of pheromones, which mark the path they have used.
When a worker ant finds food, it follows this same trail of pheromone to find its way back to its nest. In the process, it lays down more pheromone, reinforcing the trail even further. Other worker ants follow this pheromone to get to the source of food so that they can carry it together.
This explains why you will find hundreds of ants in your kitchen in just a few minutes after you have spilled some rice.
Carpenter ants, also known as wood ants, are the exception to this method of tracking a path to a source of food. While other ants rely solely on pheromones, wood ants use a combination of pheromones and visual memories to get to a source of food.
These ants (carpenter ants) use pheromones for the first round, as they capture and store images as they go. On the subsequent trips, the ants rely on landmarks and memories of the landscape to trace their way. This is because the pheromone method of movement is slow, as an ant has to walk with the antennae on the ground trying to pick up the pheromone chemicals.
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How Do Ants Carry Food Back to The Nest?
Ants work together to carry food back to the nest. They have a system where worker ants surround the food item, and the front ants pull while the back ants lift.
The bigger the number of ants working together, the faster they carry the food back to the nest.
There are instances where ants work individually, though. The individual ant bites a large piece of food into smaller manageable pieces that it can carry back to the colony. This method tends to be efficient but takes longer, especially if there is a lot of food to be carried.
Back in the nest, ants have various methods of storing excess food. One interesting method is the use of other ants as food storage vessels. These ants are known as ‘honey pot’ ants, and they mainly store sweet foods and fluids such as nectar, water, and fats.
Read Also: 7 Ingenious Ways Ants Survive the Rain
What Challenges Do Ants Face When Looking or Food?
Ants face different challenges when foraging for food. For one, food can become quite scarce, especially during drought. Secondly, their effort could be cut short by humans if they go scavenging in homes. Most humans consider ants to be pests, so they will use various methods to eliminate and prevent ants from accessing their homes.
Another challenge that ants face in their efforts to find food for their colonies is when they are carrying food as a team. This is because they tend to lose their path and make several wrong turns before reaching their nest.
The losing of the trail could be because of the large piece of food blocking their antennae, preventing the ants from navigating effectively. Thus, ants moving in a group have a poorer sense of direction than ants moving individually.
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Ants use their heightened sense of smell to find food. They practice division of labor in their colonies, where the task of finding food is given to worker ants.
Worker ants use the pheromone hormone to mark their trails when they go looking for food, which is also a way to communicate with other worker ants. When they find food, worker ants work together to carry it back to the nest.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.