Do Ants Feel Pain? Exploring the Mysteries of Insect Senses

folder_openHymenoptera, Insecta
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Ants are fascinating creatures that can be found in various environments around the world.

Known for their complex social structures and impressive problem-solving abilities, these insects have captivated the scientific community for years.

One question that often arises is whether or not ants can feel pain.

Although ants lack the complex brain structures associated with pain perception in humans, their reactions to certain stimuli provide some clues.

Do Ants Feel Pain?
Swarming Ants

Recent research indicates that ants have similar sensory systems to other insects, which may allow them to detect and respond to harmful or distressing stimuli.

This could suggest that ants can experience a sense of pain, albeit not in the exact same way humans do.

To understand this phenomenon better, scientists often study ants’ responses to harmful situations, such as exposure to heat or being trapped in sticky substances.

Observations of ants’ behavior in these circumstances can offer insights into their potential pain sensations and improve our overall understanding of insects’ sensory systems.

Ants and Their Senses

Antennae and Sensory Receptors

Ants are insects with a highly developed sensory system.

Their antennae contain a large number of sensory receptors, which enable them to detect chemicals, vibrations, and air currents, among other things.

These receptors allow ants to communicate, find food, and navigate in their environment.

For example:

  • Chemical receptors are sensitive to pheromones, helping ants to coordinate their activities and signal information about food sources.
  • Mechanoreceptors detect vibrations and provide information about the terrain.

Argentine Ants eat Orbweaver

Eyes and Ears

Most ant species have compound eyes that enable them to see and react to various stimuli in their environment.

The size and number of facets in their eyes can vary depending on the species. Some ants also have simple eyes called ocelli, which help them detect light and dark.

Ant PartFunction
Compound EyesProvide visual information
OcelliDetect light and dark

However, ants do not have ears like humans. Instead, they rely on vibrations to interpret sounds, using their antennae to pick up these vibrations.

Do Ants Feel Pain? Pain Perception in Ants

Nociception vs. Emotional Pain

Ants can experience nociceptive pain related to tissue damage, stemming from the activation of primary afferent neurons within their bodies.

This type of pain is characterized by an acute sensation and acts as an early warning system for potential harm.

Examples of events causing nociceptive pain in ants could include predator attacks or accidental injuries.

In contrast, ants may not experience emotional pain as mammals do, due to their simpler nervous systems and limited cognitive abilities.

Emotional pain is more closely associated with feelings such as trauma, anxiety, and suffering.

Ants
Carpenter Ants

Ant Nervous System and Brain

Ants have a simpler nervous system compared to mammals, which consists of a brain and segmental nerve cords running along their body.

Let’s look at some key differences between the ant brain and mammalian brain:

Ant BrainMammalian Brain
Smaller in sizeLarger in size
Associated with simpler behaviorsAssociated with complex behaviors
Limited learning and memory capabilitiesAdvanced learning and memory capabilities

Ant brains have developed special structures and functions for cooperation and communication with their community, allowing them to exhibit highly social behaviors.

However, their simpler nervous system is still capable of detecting and responding to harmful stimuli, ensuring their survival.

Some features of the ant nervous system include:

  • Distributed ganglia acting as local processing centers
  • Specialized cells called nociceptors detecting tissue damage or chemical threats
  • Release of neurotransmitters to initiate a response to pain stimuli

In summary, ants do experience pain, mostly in terms of nociceptive pain related to tissue damage or chemical threats.

They possess a simpler nervous system and brain compared to mammals, which allows them to detect harmful stimuli and respond accordingly.

However, ants may not experience the same depth of emotional pain that mammals do, due to their limited cognitive capabilities and simpler emotional landscape.

Ant Behavior and Pain Response

Dealing with Threats

Ants are social insects that work together to defend their colony from predators. They employ different strategies to deal with threats, such as:

  • Forming a defensive line
  • Biting or stinging the predator
  • Using chemical signals to call for backup from other ants

Argentine Ants invading WTB? offices

Pain-Related Behaviors in Ant Species

Different ant species exhibit varied reactions to harmful stimuli. For example, red ants, who are known for their aggressiveness, respond to threats by biting and injecting venom, causing pain and irritation to the intruder.

Ants may also change their behavior in response to injury or trauma. Some injured ants have been observed limping or showing altered movement patterns.

However, this reaction is likely due to physical limitations rather than an emotional response to pain.

Although ants do not experience emotions like fear, anxiety, or rage, they have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to respond to negative stimuli in order to survive and protect their colony.

Comparing Pain Perception in Insects and Other Animals

Pain Sensing in Fruit Flies and Bees

Fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and bees are commonly known insect species.

Although there is no concrete evidence to prove that these insects feel pain, they do exhibit some physiological changes associated with discomfort.

For example, fruit flies and bees can sense heat and other stimuli that might cause tissue damage.

These insects may respond to predators or harmful stimuli by exhibiting stress or escape behaviors, which indicate the presence of pain-like sensations in them.

Sensing MechanismFruit FliesBees
Heat DetectionYesYes
Tissue DamageYesYes
Escape BehaviorYesYes

Invertebrates and Pain

Invertebrates, like insects and arthropods (e.g., crabs and lobsters), exhibit pain-like sensations through their nerve cords and other primitive structures that act as analogs to the human spinal cord.

Some researchers argue that these animals may experience discomfort but not emotions like fear or love, as they lack a neocortex responsible for processing complex emotions.

Despite the ongoing debate, it is crucial to consider the ethical treatment of all living organisms. By understanding their pain-related behaviors, humans can better interact with and care for these creatures.

Conclusion

Ants are amazing insects that have complex social systems and behaviors.

They can sense and respond to harmful stimuli, but it is unclear if they experience pain as humans do.

Pain is a subjective and emotional phenomenon that depends on many factors, such as cognition, memory, learning, and motivation.

Ants may have different ways of processing and expressing pain that are not easily observable or measurable by humans.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about whether ants feel pain. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Queen Green Tree Ant from Singapore

Subject: What is this from Singapore?
Location: Singapore
March 18, 2014 10:19 pm
I’m looking to identify what the pictured bug/insect/bee is. is it harmful?
This was taken today in Singapore (currently 90 degrees, 70 percent humidity with heavy rain the last few days.).Sorry this is the only picture I have!
Signature: Lindsay

Queen Green Ant
Queen Green Tree Ant

Hi Lindsay,
This looks to us like a Queen Green Tree Ant or Queen Green Weaver Ant,
Oecophylla smaragdina, a species found in Australia and Indonesia.  We located some matching images on Green Path

Your individual will soon lose her wings, and if she mated, she will begin a new colony.  Here is an image on FlickR, and just last week, we posted a photo of a Green Weaver Ant Queen just beginning to lay eggs.

Hey Daniel,
Thanks so much for the prompt reply! Man you guys are quick! 🙂 thank you.
Cheers,
Lindsay

Letter 2 – No Ants

Subject:  Ants in LA
Geographic location of the bug:  West Hollywood Hills above Sunset Plaza
Date: 08/08/2018
Time: 11:46 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  For 25 years, on the hotter days through summer, my home  was invaded by lines of ants (medium-sized black, perhaps Argentine) apparently seeking water.

The past 2-3 years this has greatly diminished. This year, so far, despite (or perhaps because of) record heat, all I’ve seen are two tiny black ants.  Is this phenomenon widespread in LA?
How you want your letter signed:  Keith

No Argentine Ants

Hi Keith,
Our jealously has no bounds.  First, we are almost certain the Ants in question are Argentine Ants.  Have you moved to drought tolerant landscaping recently?  Argentine Ants cannot survive without water, and the reason they invade homes during the heat of summer is for both food and water. 

Unlike you, we had two Argentine Ant invasions in our own offices just yesterday with 1000s of Ants swarming the cat food.  Our Mount Washington neighborhood is not as lucky as your West Hollywood digs this year, and in talking to our neighbors, they are also experiencing a higher incident of Ant home invasions this year.

Argentine Ants invading WTB? offices

Letter 3 – Possibly Argentine Ant

Subject: What kind of bug is this?
Location: Yakima, WA
December 3, 2013 9:45 am
Hey bugman! What a great resource your website is. Thanks for doing this!
Yesterday I woke up to hundreds of these little bugs all over my kitchen. I killed them with RAID and they haven’t come back (yet), but I’d like to know what they are.
I only found them in the kitchen and they don’t seem to be attracted to food. I found them near baseboards, on the counter, under small appliances, even behind pictures on my wall!
I guess they look like tiny ants, but I’m not sure.
Thanks for the help!
Signature: Sam from Yakima

Argentine Ant
Possibly Argentine Ant

Dear Sam,
This is an ant, and its photo and your description remind us of the vile, invasive exotic species, the Argentine Ant, however, to the best of our knowledge, the Argentine Ant has not been introduced to Washington State.

ha. Okay, an ant it is. Thanks!
Do you have a favorite method to eradicate them?  It seems Google loves the 1/2 borax and 1/2 powered sugar method. Would you agree?
Thanks,
Sam

Hi Sam,
Normally we don’t offer extermination advice, but in the case of Argentine Ants, the gloves are off.  We had not heard of mixing borax with powdered sugar, but the sugar would attract the ants and the borax would desicate them. 

It might work.  We may give it a try.  The secret to controlling the Argentine Ants is to get to the queen.  Mother Nature Network recommends borax and sugar.

Daniel,
Thanks for forwarding me that link on the Mother Nature Network. Good stuff.
You’ve got me a bit scared about these Argentine Ants. They’re that bad, eh?

By the way, I came across this link http://www.epestsupply.com/argentine-ants.php#.Up9XGMR2NcY that shows Argentine Ants have been found in Central Washington. Guess where in Washington State I live? J
Thanks again!
Sam

Nice link.  Thanks Sam.

Letter 4 – Meat Ants devour Scarab Beetle in Australia

Food Chain Meat ants v Scarab beetle
Wed, Dec 10, 2008 at 9:37 PM
Our Australian meat ants, Iridomyrmex purpereus, are omnivorous and quite as happy eating the flowers off my zucchinis as any hapless critter that stays still long enough.

Farmers will sometimes use a nest as a disposal system for animal carcasses. A nest may have around 85000 ants and they can reduce a full size cow to just bones in about three days.

Their bite does not sting but they will chomp on you if you are in their way in bare feet.. This scarab beetle, Exochogenys nigripennisare, will be little more than a snack.
aussietrev
Queensland, Australia although widespread

Meat Ants devour Scarab Beetle in Australia
Meat Ants devour Scarab Beetle in Australia

Wow Trevor,
Thanks for the exciting documentation of the Australian Meat Ants and the Scarab which you have identified as Exochogenys nigripennis.

Letter 5 – Mound Ant

What kind of ant is this
April 26, 2010
These ants are all over the place here in northern Idaho. They live in 1 to 3 foot tall mounds of loose debris. I want to know the name of this ant, please.
beau bugs
north Idaho U.S.A.

Mound Ant

Dear beau bugs,
Interestingly, when we began our research on BugGuide, the first thing we discovered is that there isn’t any data of Ants from Idaho submitted to the website to date. 

We are relatively certain your ant is in the genus Formica, and the likeliest candidate is Formica obscuripes which is reported from nearby Montana and Washington.  BugGuide has a nice photo of the mound, and nice photos of ants, but next to no information on the species, until we located a single comment on a posted photo

Wikipedia provided common names for the genus like Mound Ant, Field Ant and Wood Ant, as well as additional information:  “Formica are notable for their parasitic and slave making behaviors.

There are three categories.  In the exsecta and rufa-microgyna groups, virgin queens cannot start colonies on their own, but invade colonies of other groups and by various processes eventually oust the host queen and have the host workers help them raise their own brood.

Eventually the colony consists of only the invading queen’s offspring. This is called temporary social parasitism.  In the sanguinea group, colonies are started as above, but then in some species of the group workers go out and raid colonies of other groups for new workers to act as a work force, so-called slaves (but this is a poor analogy).

Some species of this group need to do this to survive, for others it is optional.  The pallidefulva, neogagates, and fusca groups are those most often parasitized by the above groups. They are also enslaved by ants of the genus Polyergus.

The evolution of this behavior is believed ultimately to have been derived from the common habit of many Formica species of adopting recently mated queens into established colonies. Indeed, in many of the parasitic species outside the ‘slave-makers’, this ‘secondary polygyny’ is common.”

According to BugGuide, Formica obscuripes is in the rufa group, and BugGuide recognizes the microgyna group as distinct, having this to report: 

“Species of this group are believed to be temporary social parasites of other species of Formica. The female in some way is adopted by workers of the host species. Host workers may remain in the colony after the intruding queen has established her own brood, but the host workers eventually die.

Most species are found in open woods or meadows. The nests are usually of the thatch type, but the thatching is normally scattered about the nest openings and appears as a flattened disc.”

Letter 6 – Oil of Peppermint

Peppermint discourages ants
Dear What’s That Bug,
I just discovered your website and love it. My husband and I will soon be spending much of our time in Costa Rica, and I anticipate having lots of questions to ask about the insects we will be encountering there.

I am writing to let your readers know that we have succeeded in ending our daily morning encounter with ants on our kitchen counter and under the sink – with essential oil of peppermint.

A couple of drops on the counter, spread with a damp sponge on their favorite areas (including under the sink) has kept them away.
Best regards,
Karen Lane
Petaluma, CA

Hi Karen,
Thanks for the great tip!!!

Letter 7 – Peppermint Oil Repels Ants

Peppermint Oil for Ants
Hi! I absolutely love your site and cruise it just for fun. I was thrilled to death to find a suggestion about using peppermint oil to deter ants. It works great! They won’t cross the lines that I painted and just the fumes alone have driven the rest away.

And it’s cheap! A bottle from the health food store was only $4.99 and a little goes a very long way. But make sure you wash your hands before you touch your face or anywhere else more delicate.

And now I don’t have to rescue all the ants out of the sink before I can use it- which was getting very frustrating and time-consuming. (I know, my husband thinks I’m crazy too … but I’m slowly converting him – he now takes all bugs outside except for black widows which he still squishes – but I’m working on that.) Thanks so much for all your hard work!
Laurie McBride

Letter 8 – Pharoah Ants

Subject: Whats this new ant?
Location: Southwestern, Ontario, Canada
November 27, 2012 8:45 pm
Hello bugman,
Me and my boyfriend moved into an apartment in September. When we were signing the lease I noticed an ant on the counter and didn’t think much of it. I grew up in the country and ants were always around. (I live in southwestern Ontario)

Be diligent, set traps, keep your food locked up tight and they will go away. Within a few weeks the place was swarming with ants, they were coming out of the outlets, the grout between the tiles, holes in the shower grout, they were all over my cloths in the closet, in the bed and in the laundry hamper in the hall.

I did my research and discovered they were pharaoh ants.. the apartment must be infested from top to bottom judging by my place. I guess the only upside is that they are the enemy of the bedbug, a bug that I distaste with a burning passion.

Anyway we set traps and they went away for about two weeks, and then out of nowhere the ants in the bathroom and kitchen exploded again, new eggs hatched? Different colony taking over? The y did not follow the pharamone scents of the last colony and I had to set new traps in their path of choice.

Anywhoodle, in the bathroom I found three curious looking ants stuck to the soap bar when I went to take a shower. They are around the same size as the rest of the ants, maybe a little bigger but they are a bit lighter, and their bums are stripped. Was wondering if they are the same kind of ant?

Did we force the protectors to search for food instead of the regular foragers?
Signature: Defeated Apartment Dweller

Pharoah Ants

Dear Defeated Apartment Dweller,
We agree that these are most likely Pharoah Ants,
Monomorium pharaonis, but your second photo is quite blurry and we cannot say for certain that those ants are a different species.  T

he Pharoah Ants pictured on BugGuide are darker than the individuals in your photo.  BugGuide does indicate:  “The species Monomorium pharaonis is introduced, present in the whole world, probably originally from Africa. It is major indoor pest in the US. In colder climates it lives in heated buildings.”

Letter 9 – Possibly Argentine Ant in Texas

Subject: Ant issue
Location: Austin tx
August 28, 2016 6:15 am
Hey ! I’ve had these ants come and go thru the summer more so during the high heat…they’re small but quite a few I can’t find where they are getting in from or what exactly it will take to get rid of them…I’ve tried spay and traps and gel they leave for a bit then come back thought you could help
Thanks
Signature: Rachel

Possibly Argentine Ant
Possibly Argentine Ant

Dear Rachel,
Your Ant looks and sounds like it might be the invasive Argentine Ant,
Linepithema humile, and even though BugGuide does not list any sightings in Texas, BugGuide does provide this range information:  “across southern United States (from North Carolina to Florida, west through the gulf states to the coast of California.

The only limit to their range is freezing temperatures and lack of water.”  BugGuide also indicates:  “Will often invade homes when weather outside is too cold, too wet or too dry, so may be more obvious at some times than others.” 

Our Los Angeles office has been plagued by Argentine Ants for years, and we would love to find an eco-friendly means of control, and though we do not normally provide extermination advice, all bets are off when it comes to invasive species, and the Argentine Ant is at the top of the list of scourges we would like to eliminate.

Letter 10 – Possibly Red Spider Ant Alate not related to Skin Condition

Subject: Plagued by bugs!!
Location: Newcastle nsw
January 24, 2015 7:57 am
Hi there,
I live in Newcastle nsw Australia and have been plagued by bugs for the past 6 months. They are irritating my skin and my partners. We get itchy and have open sores all over our bodies, mainly just behind our ears and on the neck, legs, arms, face, back, hands and feet, well everywhere!

We had pest control come and exterminate what he believed to be bird mites several types he said, funnily enough he wouldn’t come back again because he was tired and won’t take our calls now .

Initially the problem died down but now 2 months later is back full force, it’s not scabies, it’s possibly a million other things but we can’t seem to find any help with this.

Tonight I was in the bathroom and this long spindly legged thing appeared from nowhere, I know I have seen it several times around the house but have no idea what it is and if it could be a factor in the skin dilemma.
Signature: Rachel

Unknown Hymenopteran
Possibly Red Spider Ant Alate

Dear Rachel,
We are relatively certain that the pictured insect is not responsible for your skin irritation, and we believe that Mites are most likely the problem.  The pictured insect is a member of the order Hymenoptera which includes wasps and ants. 

We are leaning toward it being the alate of an Ant, a winged reproductive individual, though the legs are quite long for a typical ant.  Perhaps one of our readers will be able to provide us with a more definitive identification. 

Again, we do not believe this Hymenopteran is related to your skin condition.  This individual does resemble the Red Spider Ants pictured on the Brisbane Insect website.

Unknown Hymenopteran
Possibly Red Spider Ant Alate

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Ants

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Hi

    I have an ant problem in my office and want to use a natural solution. did you use a dropper to distribute the peppermint oil or did you mix it with water?

    James

    Reply
  • Reply
  • Hi , which part of Singapore did you took this picture taken

    Reply
  • Hi karen Lane. are you married to superman? his other wifes were: lois lane, lana lane and lina lane. LOL. just breaking the ice. thanks for the remedy for ants. I used lots of boric acid powder and used it mostly inside electrical piping, switches and outlets where they caused short circuits, swithch malfunction and they chew the wiring insulation (no kidding) causing grounds and power outages in some rooms, forcing me to pull out old and install new wires and hardware. again, thanks.
    I though Petaluma was a fictitious name in Charles Schults’s snoopy. i was wrong.
    enjoy your trip to costa rica. best regards, emilio

    Reply
  • Hi karen Lane. are you married to superman? his other wifes were: lois lane, lana lane and lina lane. LOL. just breaking the ice. thanks for the remedy for ants. I used lots of boric acid powder and used it mostly inside electrical piping, switches and outlets where they caused short circuits, swithch malfunction and they chew the wiring insulation (no kidding) causing grounds and power outages in some rooms, forcing me to pull out old and install new wires and hardware. again, thanks.
    I though Petaluma was a fictitious name in Charles Schults’s snoopy. i was wrong.
    enjoy your trip to costa rica. best regards, emilio

    Reply

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