Ants smell using sensitive proteins present on their long antennae along with the olfactory receptors. Although ants don’t have noses, they have the necessary anatomy to detect even extremely faint smells.
Their smelling capability plays a strong role in their daily social interactions, in finding particular locations, and in finding new food sources with the help of each other.
Their smelling prowess is regarded as much stronger than humans and it can easily even differentiate between the two molecules within the same chemical formula, which differs only to a minute extent.
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Do Ants Have Noses?
Ants don’t have noses. Instead, they have sensitive antennae that can detect different scents in their environments.
Smelling is a tremendously important ability for ants as they communicate with other ants via the use of pheromones, touching, and sounds.
There are dedicated proteins present in the antennas of insects including ants, called the Pheromone-binding proteins (PBP). These proteins capture the pheromone trails of one another and pass them onto the nerve endings where it is released and analyzed further.
The nerve impulses travel directly to the ant brain and it then dictates the ant behavior.
Apart from communicating with each other, the scent capturing ability of the antennae allows the ants to detect food sources, find suitable mates, locate their nests.
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How Do Ants Smell Food from Far Away?
An individual ant can smell food from a distance of over 30 metres using their sensitive antennae. When an ant finds food, it leaves an invisible trail of pheromones back to the colony so that other ants can detect and follow it to the food source.
Ants contain about four to five times more the number of odor receptors than other insects. This allows them to easily pick up scents that are lingering around in the air.
Research has shown that this “scent picking up ability” of the ant antennae has got a significant relationship with the wind direction.
The wind flow plays a big role in carrying the odor cues and ants have got a very sensitive smelling system in place which is extremely efficient in picking up such cues and accordingly they navigate their way towards the odor source (these are termed as the olfactory cues).
A more recent study was done by the biologists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, to see how long it roughly takes for foraging ants to find their food and how long will they usually travel to find the food.
Their study was based on the activity of the desert ant (Cataglyphis fortis). They found the following significant findings:
- Ants can pick up scents that can range from 32 meters to 38 meters looking for food sources. The researchers estimated that the ants screen an area of over 1500 square meters during their food gathering activity.
- On average it took the ants roughly about 4 minutes to find the food location.
- The ants always found the food while going downwind and this suggested that they were deeply influenced by the odor cues coming off the food. On occasions where they were present upwind to the given food items, they showed no interest in the food source. This was because the smell was not coming their way owing to the upwind movement. This further cemented the fact that they heavily rely on their smelling ability to detect food.
- Ants were found to get attracted most to the smell of a compound known as linoleic acid, which is a fatty acid present in most other insects. This compound is known as a necromone and insects like bees, cockroaches, ants, etc recognize their members by the release of this compound upon death. Generally, to avoid being in danger. But in the case, of these ants, they instead went rushing in towards the dead members of the colony to scavenge on them.
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Do Ants have a Smell?
Each specific type of ant within the colony contains a particular distinct smell, so each ant knows where it’s meant to be.
These odors are produced by hydrocarbon chemicals that are present on the exoskeleton of the ants. So by taking in this odor, they can differentiate between the various caste hierarchies within the ant colony.
Also, particular caste members of one colony will smell completely different than the same caste members of a different colony of the same species. This further demonstrates the sophistication of their scent picking up system which, in fact, is so strong that they can differentiate between the hydrocarbons with 24 atoms and 25 atoms.
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Can Ants Smell Food Through Plastic?
There are some varieties of ants (e.g. carpenter ants) that can chew their way through the plastic if they find the smell of a viable food source kept inside that plastic container.
The key is to keep the food in an airtight condition so that the food smells don’t get picked up by them.
In the case of certain organic items like everyday kitchen trash, it is of utmost importance that you use airtight plastic bags, as kitchen trash can produce enormous amounts of odor cues as time passes.
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Can ants smell sugar?
Ants can smell and differentiate between minutely similar components and indeed has got the sensitive olfactory receptors in place that can pick up sugary food trails.
They further use their chemical sensing system to forge towards a sugary food location and interact with one another via pheromones.
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Can ants smell dead ants?
Yes ants can smell and locate dead ants! In a recent study, researchers positioned dead ants around ant nests, and they could easily pick up the locations of those dead ants, even if they were 5.9 meters away.
Ants are social insects so having strong communication among themselves is a pivotal part of their daily life. Many other insects use pheromones to communicate with one another, but the overall process is much more articulate and sensitive in ants.
The olfactory receptors allow the ants to take part in the daily chores of recognizing various caste members, memorizing their routes, detecting predator attacks, and picking up food trails. Hence without the smelling system in place, it will be hard for an ant to survive in this world.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.