Do Ants Have Brains? (Are they intelligent?)

No matter how annoying ants might be when they find a way into your apartment via the tiniest gap or ruin an idyllic picnic in the woods with their bites, they are also quite fascinating. We admire their knack for teamwork, collaboration, and organization and the often impressive anthills they build. But how does it all work? How do they come up with plans and follow true?  

Do ants have brains? Yes, they do! Some scientists even say that, compared to other insects, ants have the largest brain in proportion to their size. This could explain the impressive way in which they stay organized while living in such large groups, navigate their surroundings, and communicate. 

Of course, in comparison to the human brain, the ant brain is quite simple. The brain of an ant has 250 000 neurons whereas a human brain is said to have between 86 billion and 100 billion brain cells. When seen as a single being, a colony of ants has a brain the size of that of a mammal.

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Since ant colonies are organized in a strict caste system where each kind of ant has a specific responsibility it makes sense that their brain is not developed to the level a human brain is – they do not have to multitask or switch between tasks! 

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How Do Ants Communicate? 

Contrary to other insects like bees, which hum, or cicadas, which sing, ants do not produce a sound that we as humans can hear. So how do they communicate? Basically, ants communicate via scent, touch, body language, and sound. Ants produce pheromones, chemicals that have been developed to communicate very specific messages which they are then able to “smell” with their antennas.

Each ant colony has its own smell which makes it possible to instantly differentiate friend from foe. Ants can also leave a trail of pheromones behind when they want to lead other ants to a food source. 

An ant’s antennas are not only useful for smelling, though – they also use them to communicate by touch and body language. 

While ants have no “voice” in the literal sense, they can produce sounds by rubbing their legs on a rough part of their body – similar to cicadas, but much, much quieter. This sound carries to a farther distance than pheromones and is therefore useful for distress calls, when, for example, an ant is trapped in a part of a tunnel that has collapsed. 

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How Is An Ant Colony Organized? 

Ant colonies are organized via a cast system that follows strict social rules. In a colony, there are four different types of ants. Most importantly, there is the queen. She is both the founder and the leader of the colony and her chambers are located deep inside the colony so that she is perfectly protected against predators. Her job is, basically, to populate the colony by laying thousands of eggs.

An ant queen leaves much longer than the workers and drones, she is significantly bigger and is born with wings. Once she has founded her own colony and has mated, though, she bites off her wings because she does not need them anymore. Some species have only one queen, those are called monogyne, but some species have colonies with several queens, these are polygyne colonies. 

Do Ants Have Brains
Do Ants Have Brains?

Worker ants, which are the ants you are most likely to encounter outside of the anthill, are female. Their responsibility is the protection of the colony, the building and repairing of the nest, and the feeding of the whole colony. They spend most of their existence gathering and allocating food.

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Some of these worker ants are a bit bigger and stronger than the others and are thus capable of, for example, cracking open seeds and fighting attackers. These strong workers are known as “soldiers.” Worker ants can lay eggs, but since they cannot mate, they only produce male offspring. 

For producing female offspring, the seed of a male ant is needed, too. These male ants are called drones and their task is to mate with the queen so that she can produce offspring. Once this task is fulfilled, they die, so they mostly only live for a few days. 

The fourth kind of ant you will find in a colony are the offspring of the queen. These freshly hatched winged ants can be male or female and they are called alates or reproductives. They leave the nest to found new colonies.