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Ant Pheromones: How Trail Pheromone Works

Pheromones are chemicals released by animals (in this case ants) that alter the behavior of similar animals that detect this pheromone.

Ants release a number of pheromones. The most common is the trail pheromone that allows other ants to quickly find food discovered by the ant that first found it. When they find something good, they will leave behind this distinctive scent so the others can find it too.

Ants traveling along pheromone trails will also release pheromones, hence strengthening the chemical signal.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Ants x
5 Things You Didn't Know About Ants

These types of chemical pheromones help ants successfully maintain ant society.

Ants also produce these chemicals when they’re under duress or feel threatened by another ant colony – like during times of war or famine.

What Are Pheromones?

Pheromones are chemical signals that ants use to communicate with each other (much like bees [1]). They have a wide range of uses, including alerting others about danger or food sources nearby. 

Ants leave pheromone trails for the rest of their colony to follow in order to find new food sources and protect themselves from dangers like predators and ant traps.

Read more: How do ants find food?

canpenter ant trail

Types of Pheromones

Pheromones are chemical substances that insects, mammals, and other animals release into the environment. They can be used to reinforce behavior among members of the same species or they may work more generally in defense against predators.

Insects use pheromones for many purposes including trail-marking by ant colonies, finding food sources, and mating season cues.

The ant trail pheromone is used to create trails between food sources and the ant nest. This allows for efficient transport of food, eggs, larvae, and other supplies.

The number of ants that die during food gathering can be reduced through their effective communication by marking a specific path or trail using pheromones.

Ants are known to use ant pheromone trails in order to find the shortest path between their nests and food source.

What Pheromones Do Ants Use?

The ant pheromone that has been studied the most in ant trials is called methyl-cyclohexane carboxylate, or MCHC. This chemical helps ants find their food and communicate to other ants where it is located. It also makes sure they can find their way back to the nest with ease.

What Is Trail Pheromone?

Trail pheromone is a chemical substance, signaling that food has been discovered. Ants release the trail pheromones to mark their path from the food source to the nest, so other ants follow these trails. 

While ant colonies use multiple different types of chemicals for communicating within their colony, outside ant-to-ant interactions are often limited just to trail pheromones.

ant trails

Pheromones From Dead Ants

Pheromones are used by dead ants as well. When ants die, they’ll release a chemical that lets other ants know about the death of their comrade. 

When ants pick up this “death-scent”  they’ll act quickly to move them to the midden (a cemetery/garbage site), so keep the nest free of germs.

ants carrying the dead

What Chemicals Are in Ant Pheromones?

There are many ant species, so the types of ant pheromones and chemicals vary between ant subspecies. Scientists have found more than 100 different compounds across subspecies, but they still don’t know exactly how every single type is used by ants for communication purposes.

Ant pheromone chemical compounds vary depending on the ant subspecies’ specific needs for survival in its habitat.

For example, one type of ant may secrete ant pheromones that signal to other ants that they have found food, while another ant subspecies may secrete ant pheromones with a different compound for the same purpose.

How Ants Use Chemicals to Communicate

Ants release pheromones for several reasons:

  • Some ants may secrete ant pheromones when they are threatened, to warn other nearby ants of the threat.
  • When an ant finds food or another valuable resource like water high up on a surface, it might leave ant pheromone behind for other ant workers to find.
  • Ants also use ant pheromones when they are building a nest.
  • Ants can use pheromones to identify other ants and what kind of ants they are (worker, queen, or male).

Ants communicate with each other in a variety of ways. Ant pheromones are one way that they use chemicals to send messages. 

One ant can sense the presence or absence of another ant, which helps them coordinate their efforts when working together to do things like building an ant colony and foraging.

Read more: How ants communicate

ant colony swarming of worker ants

The ant uses its mandibular glands to put out a trail of this chemical so other ants know where food is located. When they follow it back, they will have an easier time finding their way again in the future.

Ants have an incredible sense of smell, which helps them pick up these pheromones. Since ants are also covered in pheromones, they can tell, just by smell alone, if an ant is a worker, queen, or male [2].

How Long Does Ant Pheromone Last?

Ants’ pheromones can last for several days. This means ant trails can last even after the food source has been removed. If this is the case, the ants do eventually learn that the trail leads to nothing, and will stop following it.

Ant Pheromones Chemical Structure

trail pheromone chemical structure
Chemical Structure of trail pheromone for the pharaoh ant. Source: Science Direct

The chemical structure of ant pheromones, and more specifically trail pheromone, varies depending on the species of ants we’re dealing with.

The pheromone produced by the leafcutter ant, Atta texana, is a very active substance called methyl-4-methylpyrrole 2-carboxylate [3]. This compound is detected by ants at a concentration of 0.08 pg per cm of trail. This equals 3.48 × 108 molecules per cm of trail. Based on these numbers, we can calculate that 0.33 mg of the pheromone would be enough to draw a trail around the entire world, strong enough for ants to follow.

The more ants on one ant trail, the stronger scent gets laid out by those traveling over it (known as self-reinforcing ant pheromone). This allows ants to find food more easily and for the ant colony to become stronger. 

What Other Animals Use Pheromones?

Pheromones are used throughout the animal kingdom for a variety of purposes [4]. The ant pheromone trail is just one example, but other animals use them in many ways as well. 

Some of the animals that make use of pheromones are:

  • Ants
  • Bees
  • Wasps
  • Moths
  • House mice
  • Elephants
  • Goats
  • Pigs

For example, dogs and cats secrete chemicals to mark their territory at intruders or when they go outside. These chemical signals from pets can be very powerful, so it’s best not to try and bury or mask them.

About Teodoro Pittman

Teodoro is a nature and animal lover. He specifically focuses on insects, such as ants, bees, and the like. In his free time, he takes care of his own ant farm, where he analyzes their behavior. Teodoro has spent the last 7 years studying the intricate behavior of these small creatures.