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Necrophoresis: Why Ants Carry Dead Ants

Necrophoresis is a behavior observed in social insects such as ants, bees, wasps, and termites in which they transport the deceased corpses of colony members from the nest or hive region. 

This serves as a hygienic precaution to keep illness and infection from spreading throughout the colony.

There are a few theories as to why ants carry their dead:

5 Things You Didn't Know About Ants x
5 Things You Didn't Know About Ants
  • One theory is that the necrophoric behavior helps keep diseases from spreading through the ant population, especially in crowded colonies where there is little room for corpses to be stored.
  • Another theory states that necrophoresis provides nutrients back into the colony environment by feeding on nearby populations of microbes or fungi. 
  • Dead bodies can provide an abundant source of nitrogen and carbon which can also boost plant growth near nests. This would help support rapid colony growth. 
  • The final hypothesis behind this particular funeral ritual has been proposed due to recent studies indicating microbial communities exist within bodily fluids of insects such as blood, hemolymphs, fatty acids, etc. These microorganisms could possibly represent a source of food for necrophoresis.

Necrophoric behavior can also be utilized to mark a site as a midden, which serves as an ant’s “dumpster” and burial ground. This is where dead ants are brought. Ants have middens to make sure that dead ants aren’t laying around in the nest area.

Necrophoresis: What Is It?

Necrophoresis is the phenomenon where ants (and other insects) carry their dead. 

ant removing the dead ants

Ants will remove their dead from their colony and throw them into a dumpster known as a midden. 

There are several theories on necrophoresis, including that it allows for odors to be removed from the ant’s system or that necrophoresis helps prevent infection by removing pathogens from the living space of an ant nest.

Also read: Do ants eat dead ants?

Why Do Ants Carry Their Dead?

When ants die, they elicit pheromones that let’s other ants know that they’ve passed [1]. They carry them away to keep the nest clean, and to avoid pathogens from spreading.

Ant colonies contain multiple workers like linepithema humile (Argentine ants) that help keep the colony clean and free of parasites; they even take out trash/dead bodies from inside! 

When a worker dies, other ants come by to pick up the corpse before it stinks too much or becomes food for predators such as spiders or birds.

dead ant and insects

Keeping the Nest Clean

One of the most important things that ants do is keep their nest clean. They have a special chamber in their nests especially for burying dead ants, which they call a midden. 

The necrophoresis process starts when an ant dies near or inside another live ant’s territory. It will then become necrotized (become necrosed), which means its body tissue becomes soft and liquidy by releasing enzymes from one cell to break down other cells around them.

Ants act fast when other ants die, to make sure the dead ants won’t break down before they’ve moved them to the midden.

carpenter ants on tree branch

Avoiding Contamination

Necrophoresis is a form of kin selection that allows the ant to avoid disease spreading through the colony. 

By carrying its dead out, it can prevent contamination and remain healthy; necrophoric behavior also helps with pest control because other insects are less likely to invade an area where death has occurred.

What’s a Midden?

A midden is the ant’s dumpster and burial ground. It can be found within their nest or somewhere in between. Ants use necrophoresis to transport dead ants out of their nests by using them as porters.

Why Do Dead Ants Attract More Ants?

It has been shown that when an ant dies, it attracts other ants. These attracted ants will then carry the body away. 

black ants nest

While necrophoresis is not very well understood among scientists, it’s believed that oleic acid is emitted when ants die. This is what attracts other workers to the corpse. The same phenomenon is found in bees [2].

This would explain why necrophoresis occurs more frequently in areas with high concentrations of foraging trails and homes containing many living workers.

Necrophoric behavior may also play into communication between colonies because when one colony leaves, another will often move in within hours or days. It seems that this “space” is filled quickly by nearby colonies after death even before decomposition begins.

Dead Ants Emit Pheromones & Chemicals

During necrophoresis, ants emit chemicals (pheromones) to signal other ants that there is a dead ant. Oleic acid is one of the chemicals emitted by dead ants and it signals not just live workers but also larvae and queens.

group of ants

What Is Oleic Acid?

Oleic acid is an organic compound that is found in some ants. This chemical is responsible for the necrophoresis process, which allows ants to transport dead bodies away from their colony.

Do Ants Get Sad When Other Ants Die?

Ants don’t feel complex emotions like humans. This means, they probably don’t feel sad when other ants die.

Ant necrophoresis happens when one ant dies and another picks up its carcass and carries it away from where it died so that they do not attract predators or diseases which could hurt other ants.

In fact, some scientists have proposed that necrophoresis helps prevent outbreaks of infectious disease in areas crowded by a large number of insects such as anthills.

two ants together

While this doesn’t mean ants get sad when their friends die (as far as we know), they definitely take action after death has occurred. One theory states that if an ant does become caught under debris or sticky substances, another ant may attempt to save their friend.

Do Ants Bury Dead Ants?

Ants don’t bury dead ants, but they do bring them to a graveyard area: a midden. The midden is a shared area for dead ants and garbage. This is where ants bring all of the things that don’t belong in their nest.

Other Insects and Necrophoresis

Ant necrophoresis is not unique; several other insects also practice this. 

Termites bury their dead and blowflies lay eggs on corpses. Some beetles roll a ball of dung containing the corpse into which they then lay one or more eggs and some sea cucumbers eject their internal organs when attacked by predators. 

The reasons for these behaviors are varied but each serves to benefit the colony somehow.

Bees

Bees are a good example of insects that also perform necrophoresis. They place their dead comrades on top of the nest to be taken care of by older bees and wasps. Bees do this for many of the same reasons as ants: to keep everything clean and healthy [3].

bees flying in large numbers

Termites

Both termites and ants have a necrophoresis ritual, but they perform this ritual slightly differently. Where ants are moved into a graveyard area, termite corpses are buried into the nest. 

Termites deal with their dead within minutes. They detect the death of their own the same way as ants – the chemical structure is changed after death has occurred.

termites colony

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Ants Know When an Ant Is Dead?

When ants die, they emit oleic acid. This lets other ants know, that they’re dead. Ants use pheromones for communication, even when they’re dead. When an ant smells the “death pheromone”, they instinctively know, that they should carry the ant away.

What Is Necrophoresis?

Necrophoresis is defined as the movement of dead ants by other worker ants. The necrophoric behavior often involves an ant dragging a dead body to its nest or carrying it on its way home, and occasionally includes hauling off pieces like legs and wings (called myrmecophagy).

Why Do Ants Pick up Dead Ants?

Ants are very social insects. They work together for the benefit of their colony. This also means keeping the nest clean and protecting the colony at all costs. When ants die, they can attract predators or diseases. Hence, to avoid this, they carry them away to the midden.

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.