Ants That Illegally Procreate Are Revealed By Their Guilty Smell

By Nina Bai | January 12, 2009 5:41 pm

ant fightWorker ants that get too big for their britches and attempt to reproduce in a colony ruled by a queen are attacked by fellow colony members, according to a new study. By ant colony conventions, worker ants are supposed to give up procreating themselves in favor of taking care of the queen’s eggs. Researchers found that the occasional cheating worker ant gives off a distinct “fertility pheromone” that notifies other ants and incurs their wrath. Entomologist Les Greenberg said, “The study is a fascinating example of how social insects maintain order in their societies” [National Geographic News].

The queen ant is the only fertile female in an ant colony. Worker ants are mostly sterile females, but they are biologically capable of a type of parthenogenesis, the process that allows a female to produce offspring without a mate. When they try, however, they produce chemicals called pheromones that their sisters detect with antennas [National Geographic News]. The hydrocarbon-based pheromones indicate their reproductive status and are also transmitted to the eggs they lay. Jürgen Liebig, co-author of the study in Current Biology [subscription required], described pheromone detection: “It’s basically smell, but not the smell we know” [National Geographic News].

Researchers had observed that rogue reproducers were attacked by other worker ants. To determine whether the pheromones functioned as a scarlet letter, researchers produced a synthetic hydrocarbon in the lab that had the same olfactory properties as the natural one, then plucked a few completely innocent ants from a nest and dabbed the chemical on them [TIME]. Upon their return to the colony, the pheromone-coated ants were swiftly bitten, pulled and held by their peers [BBC News]. However, in colonies without a queen, ants marked with the pheromone were not punished.

Pheromone signaling may also be used by other social insects, such as bees and wasps. Liebig believes that the temptation to cheat exists in any society, from insects to humans, although the methods of “reproductive policing” may be different. “The idea that social harmony is dependent on strict systems to prevent and punish cheating individuals seems to apply to most successful societies,” he said [BBC News].

Related Content:
80beats: Brazilian Ants Sacrifice a Few Relatives Each Day for the Greater Good
DISCOVER: E. O. Wilson Says Ants Live in Humanlike Civilizations

Image: flickr / Cyron

  • B. Nicholson

    Yes, we have made jealousy routinely in human men and women with the human masculine facial skin surface lipid p.o. to their osculation partner. see: Nicholson B. Does kissing aid human bonding by semiochemical addiction? British J. Dermatol. 1984, 111, 626-9

  • Mike

    I foresee a possible ‘natural’ pesticide, or, untraceable assassination weapon for humans.

  • Jayson o.

    i think its halarious how other ant colonies are attacking each other when they have to fight mankind

  • janyia mack

    i think ants are threat to humans

  • janyia mack

    i think ants are threats to human

  • anna.b

    wow! i didnt knw antsz did tht to other antsz! i mean why are they fighting eachother when they are manly scared of mankind!

  • byron t

    How many egg can a ant lay at one time…

  • Kari M.

    why do they smell?

  • Travis

    Ants can cause harm to people and also they can be such a mess when you have food around

  • catherine T

    ants are in my opinon cool in a way all because they are always moving they are never still they work to keep there colony up and runing for the queen. the reason why it is so hard to find the queen when u take down a ant hill is because she is so far down for her protection.

  • Dap J

    OMG!!! I like this article and the reason why is because I don’t have no problem with ants as long as they don’t bite me or come near me and if they don’t do that then I am ok

  • Laura M.

    The queen is the only one who can lay so many eggs at the same time that is kind of crazy so now ants are fighting each other so they can give eggs to their queen

  • Shawntia R

    I HATE ANTS!!! They are to dangerous and they cause to much______trouble!!!

  • Jasmine R

    why do ants do that to eachother anyway? Why do ants fight eachother? How many eggs can a ant lay in one year?

  • seth w

    why would they attack each other?

  • Maria P

    i think its wierd that they attack each other…and how many eggs can a queen ant lay in a month?

  • Bryan V.

    This article gives a good insight to the nature of insects and how act this is a good article to read for anyone how is intrested in insects

  • Jumblepudding

    So, the workers’ ability to reproduce exists as a contingency in case the queen is killed without an heir? Or does the reproductive worker develop into a queen after her immaculate conception if she isn’t killed?

  • joseph

    Jeezuz its a haven for horrible “engrish” grammar and spelling in here, huh? Immaculate conception? Its called Parthenogenesis, and it happens all the time in nature, god did not have sex with these ants. Why is everybody asking how many eggs a queen can lay? You’re not going to get the answer by commenting on an article, it called Wikipedia people.

    Shawntia R says: “I HATE ANTS!!! They are to dangerous and they cause to much______trouble!!!”

    Joseph says: They hate you too, and your ignorance. By the way what the “H” is this – much______trouble!!!

  • Kediset

    I am kind of curious to see that happening :O it’d be just so weird to witness

    Never figured this kind of thing happens :O


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