If you’ve ever seen an ant pile, you might have observed a unique phenomenon: Ants carry their dead. Why do dead ants seem to attract other ants? Do ants sense death and have funerals? The purpose of funerals is to honor the dead, but does this really fit for small insects as well as humans?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Necroptosis?
- Why Do Ants Carry Other Deceased Ants?
- What Are Ant Burial Practices?
- Frequently Asked Questions: Ant Burial Practices
You might be surprised to learn that many different animals have their own rituals around the dead. For example, according to legend, elephant graveyards are places where elephants go to die. Could ants have this in common with other creatures, despite their small size?
Ants are a highly sophisticated species. Though they don’t have eyes and ears, they have an outstanding sense of smell to help them travel around the nest. It’s these anatomical differences that lead to ants carrying their dead. In this guide, we’ll break down the science around whether or not ants have funerals. The answer is likely to surprise you!
What Is Necroptosis?
First, we have to discuss a scientific term known as necroptosis. Coming from the Greek word for dead body (nekros), this is a behavior found in social insects like ants, bees, and wasps. The practice of carrying dead bodies of the colony from the nest is necroptosis. Any ants of the colony can remove the dead body, but this cask is most often done by designated ant undertakers.
When ants travel from their nest to their destination, they release pheromones. At the time of death, it releases something known as oleic acid. This is the scent quite literally of death. As members of the colony detect the scent, swarms of ants will rush to the deceased insect. Interestingly enough, researchers have discovered that when live ants are covered in oleic acid, they are also removed from the colony.
The dead ants aren’t randomly moved. Because ants are highly structured, they have specific places for the living in the dead (not unlike humans). Ants build structures of dead ants and other waste materials known as middens. You can think of these as graveyards for the dead. Ants don’t literally bury the dead, but they’ll bring it to this graveyard space.
Why Do Ants Carry Other Deceased Ants?
While it might seem like ants are performing a unique burial ritual, the reality is much more black and white. Ants don’t have complex feelings the way we humans do. They don’t mourn the dead, and they don’t feel any grief at the loss of other members of their colony. They carry other deceased ants for purely practical reasons.
Removing corpses of the dead is one of the most important ways to keep the entire colony safe and healthy. Because corpses can carry diseases or other threats, they need to be taken away from the others. While it might seem like they’re rushing the dead ant as a sign of mourning, it’s a way to keep the rest of the hive safe.
This means it’s not a good idea to kill a single ant if you spot one in your home. In fact, this can have the complete opposite effect of attracting more ants. Instead, it’s a better idea to eliminate the nest altogether.
What happens when the queen ant dies?
The queen ant is the one who is in charge of making sure the entire hive runs smoothly. She’s the only ant who is irreplaceable within the hive. She’s in charge of all reproduction, and she’s physically larger than other ants. When she dies, it’s a much more significant loss than other members of the ant colony.
With the death of the ant queen, the rest of the colony will no longer be able to reproduce. The hive will slowly die out. However, the queen will be removed to the midden just as all other ants are, but this signals the end stages of a colony.
When there are multiple queen ants in a single colony, they’ve evolved to get along. When one co-queen dies, the body is taken from the nest by worker ants. In cases where there aren’t any worker ants available (like if they recently started laying eggs), the living queen breaks up pieces of the dead ant’s body before burying the pieces.
Believe it or not, this evolutionary research related to ants is also related to why humans bury the dead. In any social society, it makes practical sense to remove any deceased from the community. The same practices are true not just for ants, but for honeybees, termites, and so on.
What Are Ant Burial Practices?
Just as you might have heard of crow funerals, you might have also heard about ant burial practices. People across the globe have their own ways to honor the dead, and this is also true for animals. Just about every social community (insect or animal) has its own method of burying or disposing of the dead.
Just as humans bury or cremate their dead for practical and health purposes, so do ants. To the naked eye, it even looks like ants say goodbye to their dead in a very similar way. The deceased ants are carried off by undertakers, and they’re taken to a burial ground that acts as a final resting place. This might seem like a touching, human-like tribute on the surface, but the reality is more scientific.
A two-day wake
First, ant corpses aren’t taken away immediately after death. A Harvard entomologist discovered that the ants lie there for up to two days after they die. This is actually because the other ants don’t notice it died until the corpse emits oleic acid.
Though it’s hard for humans to comprehend, ants don’t recognize “death” as we know it. They simply respond to the oleic acid smell. They don’t have any concept of afterlives, grief, or so on. It’s a biological response to natural decomposition of the ant corpse.
Pallbearers to the graveyard
Once the death smell has been recognized, ants carry their dead to their own versions of graveyards. Known as middens, this is a structure where ants leave any waste that could be harmful to the nest.
Specific ants are designated as “undertaker” ants who remove the dead, and this is a biological function. However, any ant can (and will) remove the body to protect the health of the whole colony. It’s much less of an honor than it is for humans, but it’s interesting to draw these comparisons.
Believe it or not, some species of ants (like the red ant) ensure the corpse carriers keep distance from other ants in the nest. This is because they’re more likely to be carrying disease. Because they can’t wear protective equipment like humans, they do limit cross-contamination by staying outside of the nest when they can.
Frequently Asked Questions: Ant Burial Practices
If you’ve ever spent any amount of time observing an anthill, you might wonder what exactly is going on under the surface. This fascination with ants and small insects brings many to ask questions like these below.
Do ants bring flowers to their dead?
Though many of the ant’s burial rituals are similar to our own, ants don’t bring flowers to their dead. Flowers are often seen as symbols of life, so they’re a common gift for funerals and memorials. A few years ago, a video went viral showing ants seemingly having a funeral service where they bring flower petals to a deceased bee.
Though a beautiful image of nature, the reality is much less touching. According to scientists, it’s more likely that the bee died at the entrance of the nest. This is why there were already petals nearby, and the ants are simply responding to the chemical odor of death. In short, ants do not carry anything to honor their dead.
Do ants have graveyards?
That being said, ants do have graveyards. Though these look very different from what we consider graveyards, underground cemeteries or dumps are used to move the deceased away from the nest. Middens are the place where dead ants are laid to rest, though there is no ceremony or fanfare.
Once dead, the ants do not return to the final resting place. They don’t mourn the deceased. There are also no permanent markers marking this space as a gravesite. It’s similar to a garbage pile in our own society.
Do ants cannibalize their dead?
In short, ants do not cannibalize their dead. Once dead, ants are removed from the colony to keep the rest of the ants safe. They do not do anything with the corpse other than bring it to the ant cemetery.
However, in the case where co-queen ants die, the other living queen might take apart the body to bury it more easily. This is done purely for practical purposes. The body is never consumed. Ants are omnivores, and they eat small insects, sap, and fruits.
Understanding the Nature of Death
The more we understand death, the easier it is to live life to the fullest. It’s interesting to see how animals and insects in all shapes and sizes respond to death. Though you might not think of ants when you think of complex social systems, they’re truly an evolutionary genus species.
Ants aren’t exactly taking part in complex funeral rituals, but they do have practices around handling the dead. These stem from many of the same practical sources that our own death rituals began—protecting others from harm and disease. We living beings might not be so different after all.
- “Do ants bury their dead?” New Scientist. NewScientist.com.
- Hugo, Kristin. “Queen Ants Dismember and Bury Corpses in Elaborate Death Rituals.” Newsweek. Newsweek.com.
- “Why Do Dead Ants Attract More Ants?” Captain Answer. YouTube.com.