The ants‘ communication system is highly sophisticated and highly efficient. It encourages individual colony members to work together towards a common goal without a leader overseeing their actions.
The main ant communication method is through chemical signals known as pheromones. Pheromones are compounds that are highly scented and secreted from glands all over their bodies.
When observed by other ants, these chemicals transmit a specific message. The sensory organs located in ant antennae sense pheromones. This olfactory interaction is one of the most essential forms of communication between ants.
Ants ‘ foraging system relies heavily on pheromones and takes place as follows:
- Worker ants wander around their nest randomly until they find an appropriate food source. As the workers travel, a weak pheromone trail lay behind them.
- The ant either feeds on the food it has found or carries it back to its nest after finding a source of food, using the pheromone trail previously laid to guide it. The worker lays an even stronger trail of a “positive” marking pheromone as it returns to the nest.
- It is followed by other ants who come across this trail until they too meet the food, feed on it or pick it up and then return to the nest, leaving more pheromones as they go and reinforcing the established trail.
The cycle goes on until the food source is exhausted. At this point, workers will still follow the pheromone trail to the spot where the food was located, but they will return to the nest without laying any more positive pheromones after they discover that the food is no longer present. Pheromones are compounds that are extremely volatile and easily evaporate.
Pheromone tracks that lead to degraded food sources vanish quickly without reinforcement and are no longer pursued.
This mechanism is even more advanced in some species, as some workers are able to lay negative pheromones ‘do not follow’.
This foraging system is simple yet highly efficient. If workers find multiple paths to a source of food, they choose and use the shortest path.