On the Death Rituals of Ants

This is something that I think is absolutely fascinating and I’ve been hoarding for YEARS to go into the book.  Now that I’m actually writing the book, there isn’t a place for it.  One has to kill their darlings and whatnot.  So I’m going to share it now.

dead ant

To the naked eye, ants deal with their dead much like humans.  When a member of the colony dies, the carcass will lie where it fell for a period of roughly two days.  In the fashion of a wake, this time period presumably gives the other ants time to pay their respects to their fallen comrade.  After two days, the living ants take the dead ant to an ant graveyard in a respectful procession, honoring the good work it performed for the colony.

Well, not quite.  The carcass does lie there for two days and it is carted off to a pile of dead ants.  But this isn’t done out of social obligations or as a healing ritual to soften the loss.  As Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson discovered, in reality, the dead ant must lay there for two days because the other ants simply don’t realize it is dead.

Edward Wilson

Two days after death, the tiny ant corpse begins emitting a chemical called oleic acid.  To an ant, the smell of oleic acid equals death.  The experience of death is not a sense of loss, not a dead body, not an ascent to ant afterlife- it is simply oleic acid.  As soon as the living ants smell the oleic acid smell, they spring into action, carrying the tiny decaying intruder out of their midst and dumping it into the pile.

Even more interesting, Wilson discovered that if you give a live ant a bath in oleic acid, it is as good as dead to the other ants.  The still alive (but oleic acid covered) ant is carried off to the dead ant pile, trying to clean itself, flailing around, perhaps screaming “um, hey guys, I’m fine,” to no avail.   If you smell like a corpse, sorry little buddy, you’re a corpse.  Into the pile with you.

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  • RLevinson
  • Rachel Green

    fascinating.

    My mother poured boiling water on a nest once and the next day the ants had laid the dead in military formation over a square yard of earth.

    • Disgusting. Your mother, I mean. What was the POINT of that? They weren’t even in her house.

      • Omar Ruiz

        Thats not disgusting..that ant nest needed to be gone

  • TheSquirrel

    One of the fun perks of being a scientist is playing practical jokes on other life forms.

  • Anonymous

    “I’m not dead yet!”
    “Shut up, you will be soon.”
    How is it anyone’s been able to resist that one?

  • Anonymous

    Oops. Missed it – sorry!

  • jgaia

    Ants meandered over a 20 feet from the garage door over a base board to my living room. I sprayed them with windex a few times and left them there so that their brethren get the idea to please not come back. They kept coming and I kept spraying over the course of one day. I was already getting worried that it will be hard to clean off dried ants.

    The next morning they were all gone AND ants didn’t return. Hmm. So it appears that they might not necessarily haul off dead ants just because they don’t like the smell while still wanting to stay. These ants actually decided they didn’t want to come back, yet still carried off the dead. Perhaps there is an element of being hardwired for it, not just a dislike for the oleic acid smell. Fascinating.

    • Suzanne Close

      I had the same experience with ants invading our sales center., I sprayed them with windex noticed some were still walking around but very few.. Hundreds lay still in the windex. I left them that night and was going to clean it up the next day when I returned.
      The next day when I returned there was not one single ant dead or alive.. So bizarre .. Not 2 days.. A manner of hours they had retrieved every carcass.

  • AliCPA

    This is such a great piece. I have wondered about this for years, and never remembered to look it up. Thank you!

  • Crystal Sourceint

    I intercepted an ant carrying one of his brothers
    across my kitchen floor. When he knew I was near, he dropped his cargo,
    moved away and sat completely still. I promptly picked up the dead ant
    and threw it in the garbage. Once I moved away, the mortuary-ant
    searched in vain for the missing specimen. I then collected him in a
    paper cup and put him outside. I know, I know . . . I just felt bad for the little fella’.

    • UltimateScumbag 4ever

      Worker ants are female.

    • Pete Cowell

      You probably took it far from its colony. I wonder what happens when they’re alone without a colony?

      • markay123

        lol

      • markay123

        they get sad and lonely

  • anne

    How very fascinating, thank you for this, I was indeed curious, so now i know.

  • Bess

    Not convinced. Even the small amount of comments below defy the “researcher” findings. I’m still wondering exactly how it is that humans *know* what an ant is thinking.

    • UltimateScumbag 4ever

      You idiot, Ants are all connected through scent. Thats how they communicate.

      • markay123

        yah-stinky a–holes!!

        • Beth Vincent

          Too funny lol

  • Edward Lye

    My garden has a recent infestation of Oecophylla smaragdina (common names include weaver ant, green ant, green tree ant, and orange gaster). When I spot a convoy, I hose those I find with a solution of some cheap detergent from a spray gun. In short order flies come around so I guess there is some chemical emitted. I don’t know where the recovery party appears from but they do not wait 2 days. Maybe 10 minutes and there is no nest nearby. In this party, I spot 3 ants discussing matters. I followed one pair{much earlier} and it led to a nest{so why bring it to a nest? Autopsy?}. Even after snipping off that twig and disposing of the lot, ants still appear and bodies get carried away. Apart from the chemical emission, my observations are at odds with the explanation given above.

    • Emma-Jane Paterson

      I have been very fascinated with this post,I too sprayed a whole colony of ants a while ago and forgot to clean them up,the next day every single one from the window sill had gone and not one could be found fallen on the floor. Months later they all came back,so I sprayed them again,a few hours later I started to see some movement from the window,so decided to watch what was going on. To my amazement,yes they were moving the dead,the weird thing was they were carrying them to the edge of the window sill and dropping them overboard,onto our carpet.I did kinda want to see what happened next,but it all got a bit creepy for me,so I vacuumed every one up.

      I do wonder if they were then going to go down to the floor and pick them all up,anyone know what they may have been up too?

      • Edward Lye

        Have you checked your vacuum cleaner bag …………… are the corpses still around. Now might not be the best time to turn around.

  • Jason Hamilton

    I had a different experience watching ants. I go to the park everyday for lunch and sit on a bench next to the path and watch as the ants come out and carry away the fallen crumbs of my food. I noticed that when an ant has been trampled on, a passing ant pokes at it and then drags it away towards the nest. Is it an attempt to help the crippled ant or or do ants feed on their own kind or, like the article mentioned, do they have a burial ground for their dead? This was the question I sought to answer while watching the ant being dragged away. But the article said it should lie there for two days.

  • Beth Vincent

    So a friend of mine n me was talkin one day n she asked me did I ever have p!ss ants in the bathroom n I was like yea most time in spring or summer they try takin over lol well she said she noticed several dead ones in her bath tub one day n couldn’t figure out how they got there, well a couple days after that she was laying in the tub soaking and she seen a p!ss ant come out packing something and come over n threw it in the tub with her…. she was like W T F?!?!? Well she got it out n it was a dead p!ss ant… LMAO! So she figured out where the dead ones in the tub had come from lol The other ants was using the tub as a disposing ground for other dead ants LOL OMG ain’t that some funny sh!t lol just bringing the dead ones n dumping them in the tub n going back for more lol

  • Too bad you read one article and think you have the answer.

    Besides saying ants aren’t human – yeah, we get it – the “research” is all wrong. Ants are all female, they communicate by scent and sound, and they live a very long time – the ones you see inside maybe 3 years and some outside are 20 years! So you are killing animals who have learned things.

    Recent research says that ants also have an internal clock on how long they may have left…and those that are older are the ones that take more chances to help their queen and girlfriends, and sacrifice themselves by jumping right at you, or exploring odd places. So you are killing the superheroes.

    As far as why they take the dead, I haven’t found an answer. This isn’t it, either.