Why Do Ants Clean Their Antennae?

Ants have a significant risk of infection because they keep navigating different places, like trash bins, compost bins, gardens, etc., and debris or pathogens can attach to their antennae or other body parts.

Why Do Ants Clean Their Antennae? Ants clean their antennae for better navigation, differentiation of food odors, identification of nest mates, detection of threats, selection of mates, communication, and following the food trails. They use their front legs to remove particles by scrapping and mouth saliva to clean it.

It is essential for ants to maintain themselves for better communication and survival, as they can die after the attack by pathogens, so they keep cleaning their legs, antennae, and other body parts.

Why does an ant clean its antennae?

Ants’ antennae play a crucial role in their lifespan and help them detect environmental changes. These are also known as feelers, as these insects can feel their surroundings with them.

There are smell and touch receptors on the feelers that can help identify odors and detect threats in their surroundings by feeling vibrations.

Moreover, these feelers can get dirty due to the attachment of biotic and abiotic contaminants, like pathogenic microbes, dirt, ash, soil particles, and other pollutants from the ground.

Better navigation 

Ants come across various obstacles on their way during territorial navigation, like stones, water puddles, twigs, and many other objects on the ground.

These tiny creatures use antennae for detecting obstacles as these two long feelers on their head touch the ground during movement.

Small hair on their feelers and touch receptors at the tip of hair can help detect a stone or a water puddle in their way. They cannot efficiently recognize the barriers with dirty antennae.

So, they have to keep their antennae clean for better navigation because they have to face difficulties in identifying obstacles while moving within a territory.

Differentiate food odors

Ants’ antennae have smell receptors that can differentiate odor molecules with a minor structural variation. Accordingly, they can differentiate between forms of sugar like glucose and fructose.

These smell receptors can help reach the food resource after detecting its odor from a distance. Moreover, they touch food particles with feelers before deciding to eat them.

Accordingly, touch and odor receptors play a role in choosing food, as liquid food having a pleasant odor is considered suitable for eating.

They avoid eating food particles with bad odors and hard textures. The presence of contaminants can affect their ability to differentiate food odors, so they keep themselves clean.

Identify nest mates

Ants can recognize their nest mates and foreign insects by detecting their body odors. Every colony has a distinct odor that can help identify nest mates by detecting chemical secretions.

Each colony member has a chemical label on their body, so the soldier ants check the incoming insects and allow them to enter nests after recognizing their body odor.

Dirty feelers can pose difficulties for these insects to identify their fellows and foes because dust particles form a layer on their sensitive receptors.

Accordingly, they remove dust particles and disinfect their antennae using antimicrobial saliva to get rid of biotic contaminants, resulting in increased efficiency in identifying nest mates.

Detect threats

Ants can detect the threat of predators and other natural changes in the environment using antennae because they have sensilla or hair-like structures that work like sound sensors.

Moreover, they can detect sound waves and vibrations on the ground because feelers are covered with sensory hair. They can recognize enemies by smelling bodies and staying away from them.

In addition, these insects produce pheromones when they feel threatened, and the nearby fellows reach a threatened fellow to protect them from predators.

Accordingly, they cannot detect pheromones scent if their feelers are covered in contaminants, so they keep cleaning their bodies to remove dirt particles and avoid blockage of receptors.

Follow trails

Ants prefer to forage in groups and make long foraging trails to remain connected with each other. Every ant follows another member by detecting the chemical secretions released on the ground.

Accordingly, the following insect touches the ground with its antennae and detects the odor and nature of molecules. Any disturbances in the trail can lead to death because they cannot survive alone.

The presence of dirt particles and pathogenic microbes on the feelers can cause problems identifying the chemical signals and following the trail.

Accordingly, these insects lick their antennae several times and remove the debris to avoid any interference in their activities and performance.

Selection of mate

Selection of a mate involves processing pheromone scents because competent males release chemical secretions from their bodies to attract females.

The antennae of females can only detect and understand their desire for mating when they capture molecules from the ground and decode the message.

Dirty feelers can reduce their ability to detect the secretions and affect their mating behavior because contaminating particles interfere in receiving the message or capturing molecules.

How do ants clean their antennae?

Ants clean their antennae through different mechanisms, like rubbing, scrapping, and nibbling. They use their front legs and mouthparts to remove the contaminating particles from their feelers.

They have specialized structures on their legs for cleaning purposes that can help rub the body parts to remove the particles by frequently sweeping their front legs back and forth.

In addition, it is followed by scrapping to detach the adhered dust particles when the legs show a unidirectional movement against the antennae.

The cleaning process involves bending the head and fixation of antennae into clamp-like structures on the legs. They pull it through the clamp and insert it again, which occurs repeatedly many times.

This clamp contains hair arrays on each side, classified as brushes, combs, and bristles, which are involved in the sequential cleaning process.

Bristles can help remove the larger particles attached to the feelers, and the comb pulls out the particles that are smaller to be removed by the bristles’ movement.

In contrast, brushes are flexible setae that can take smaller particles left by the bristles and comb and work efficiently without any hindrance by larger particles.

Their mouthparts also play a role in the nibbling process when their legs cannot help get rid of the contaminants. Their saliva has antimicrobial properties, which can kill bacteria or spores.

This is the final stage of the cleaning process when they apply oily saliva on the antennae and oil them after cleaning.

How often do ants clean their antennae?

Self-grooming behavior is common in ants as these insects spend a significant proportion of their daytime cleaning bodies and organs. They take care of their hygiene and remain clean.

Dirty bodies can pose a risk of contamination and infection, which can be life-threatening. They clean antennae many times a day, but their frequency varies according to caste and species.

It depends on the exposure to the external environment and contaminants, as female workers spend most of their time outside the nest navigating the environment, so they have to do it frequently.

Queens and males remain inside the nest, so there are fewer chances for their feelers to get dirty. Accordingly, the activity level and environmental conditions determine cleaning frequency.

The female workers scrape their antennae with the front legs every few minutes and apply oily saliva to kill the germs and reduce the risk of infection.

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