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Why Do Ants Carry Dead Ants? (Reasons)

Humans are not the only species that have rituals concerning their dead. Have you ever seen an insect carrying its dead and returning to its colony? As it turns out, termites, bees, and ants move their dead. This begs the question, why do ants carry dead ants? That’s exactly what we answer in this article, so stick around!

Why Do Ants Carry Dead Ants?

Red weaver carrying dead ant
Red Weaver Ant carrying dead ant | image by Ihsan Khairir via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Scientists have 3 main theories about why ants carry their dead. Ants want to keep the diseases from spreading, it’s an abundant source of carbon, nitrogen, and nutrients beneficial to the colony, and it can be a good source of food.

Like humans, ants have undertakers that act as special workers whose only job is to carry the dead. Also, ants have their own “cemetery,” where the undertakers take the dead away.

Let’s learn a bit more about the reasons ants carry away their dead, rather than just leaving them where they die.

1. Avoid the Spread of Diseases and Contamination

One of the main reasons ants carry their dead away from their nest is to ensure that any diseases or possible contamination will not endanger the colony. When an ant dies, it necrotizes, wherein its body tissues become soft and turn liquid.

This process releases enzymes and chemicals that break down the ant’s cells. If a dead ant is inside or near a nest, there’s a big chance that it can pollute the area and endanger all the ants, including the queen.

2. Abundant Source of Carbon, Nitrogen, and Nutrients

Ants and pupae
Ants and Pupae | image by Cyndy Sims Parr via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

During the decomposition stage of the body of a dead ant, it releases carbon and nitrogen that are vital in the sustenance of soil and atmosphere. Bacteria are found in the guts of these insects, which are transferred to the soil when they start to spoil.

With healthy soil surrounding the nest area, plants have better chances of development and growth. In return, this helps speed up the growth of the ant colony.

3. Microorganisms Can Be A Source of Food

The last theory scientists have of why ants carry their dead is that they use this as a last resort for their food. When colonies experience food shortages, they return to their brethren and get nutrients from them.

Although ants prefer to get their food from meat or live sources, they tend to become cannibalized when it’s only necessary. However, this is a very rare event, and it’s only done as their last resource.

What is Necrophoresis?

Ants graveyard
Ant graveyard | image by bgv23 via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Necrophoresis is a sanitation behavior most commonly found in social insects like termites, ants, bees, and wasps. The insects move their dead bodies away from the hive or nest of the colony to their respective midden.

A midden is known as a dumpster or a cemetery. This is where ants allow the corpses to decompose to ensure that any chemicals from the dead will not contaminate the nest or attract any predators.

What is Oleic Acid?

Oleic acid is the chemical released from the body of dead ants. This chemical is released at least two days after an ant has died, and it alerts live ants that there are deceased nearby. Once the scent reaches the colony’s undertaker, they will go and carry the dead body towards the midden.

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Does Killing An Ant Attract More Ants?

Ants crawling over an old log
Ants crawling over an old log | image by williamnyk via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

When we see an ant, our first instinct is to kill it. However, killing an ant can attract more ants because of the chemical that dead ants release. Dead ants release pheromones that alert nearby ants and their colony later on.

Live ants won’t notice that their other members are dead instantly. It takes at least three days for these insects to notice their killed brethren when it starts to decompose and releases oleic acid. When this happens, the undertakers will carry the dead ants away to ensure that the colony will be safe from contamination.

Do Ants Get Sad When Other Ants Die?

Scientists can still not unfold the truth if ants get sad when other colony members die. Or if ants can feel emotions of any type, though it’s unlikely that they can. As discussed above they are moving the corpses for more practical reasons.

Some observations have been made where ants would carry the corpses around their nest and even groom the dead bodies. However, after two or three days, when the oleic acid becomes more noticeable, they will leave the corpse and let the undertaker take it away.

Should You Clean Up Dead Ants?

Ants busy working on nest
Ants busy working on nest | image by Timo Newton-Syms via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Once you see a dead ant, chances are you’ll see a swarm of ants in two days. Remember that an oleic acid chemical will alert other ants if there’s a corpse nearby.

If you want to know if you have an ant infestation in your home, an expert would tell you that you shouldn’t get rid of the dead ant so that you can monitor where the live ants go. However, if you have a pet peeve of finding dead ants in your home, then you should definitely clean the corpses.

Final Thoughts

Ants will carry dead ants away to ensure the colony is safe from contamination. Since a dead ant releases oleic acid after two days, ants will only discover the dead bodies during this time. A specialized worker called an “undertaker” are the one who transports corpses to their midden.

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