Movement in circles is not a naturally occurring behavior among ants, but it can rarely happen when you see these insects spinning individually or in groups.
Why Do Ants Run In Circles? Ants run in circles when they lose walking orientation, explore food sources, attract female partners, follow scent trails, feel threatened, drunken, and confused. Moreover, their poor vision also creates problems in detecting the direction of motion, so they run randomly.
Circling behavior is common to insects as these tiny creatures rely on scents for movement due to smaller eyes and poor eyesight that can only help differentiate between light and dark.
Why do ants walk in circles?
Commonly, they do not run in circles. Ants move in a straight line when foraging or shifting their nest, but sometimes, you can see them showing such odd behavior.
Following scent trails
Ants make scent trails using pheromones or chemical secretions that keep them connected and avoid the risk of being lost in the environment.
Most commonly, you can see them foraging in straight lines that can be one or two parallel to each other; one line is directed toward a food source while the other moves away from it.
Accordingly, the ants running in circles can be following the scent left by one of their fellows, which leads to the formation of bigger circles or ant mills.
Their sense of smell helps them detect secretions on the ground with the help of antennae and follow the path of the leading insect.
Some ant species have poor vision or are completely blind, like army ants, so they rely on their sense of smell to move and locate food sources.
They begin to run in a direction where they detect the scent of pheromones without seeing whether it is safe or not. Accordingly, they are at risk of becoming a part of the death circle.
Moreover, the follower insects also spin in a circular motion if the leading insect loses its way and finds a circular path in its way created by prominent scents.
Lose walking orientation
They naturally use Earth’s electromagnetic field to return to their homes after covering distances several miles from home.
Sometimes, they can lose orientation when they reach far areas and get lost in the environment. So, the lost insect begins to move randomly in a circular motion and dies of exhaustion.
These ants leave secretions on the ground and follow their odor to get back home, but these secretions only remain viable for almost 1 or 2 days.
However, rain or other external factors can remove these secretions, and other odors dominate the smell of pheromones, resulting in loss of orientation.
Fear of predators
The workers or foragers in a colony suffer from severe threats because they leave their nests frequently and go out to navigate their territories for food.
Moreover, the larger ants can attack their tiny bodies, resulting in a chaos-like situation for other foragers, part of the foraging trail.
All of the trail members begin to move randomly in circles when they feel a threat in their surroundings, as it can be their defensive strategy to deter predators away from the circle.
Attracting female partners
Spinning behavior can be a strategic move in insects commonly seen in male insects when they have to get the attention of female partners and convince them to mate.
This circular running can help attract alates and engage their partners for a nuptial flight. A swarm of flying insects or drones becomes visible in breeding season when they have to allure queens.
All of them appear in a circle after coming out of their nests and coordinate the mating process. In addition, the drones show themselves as a competent partner and behave differently.
They feel confused when their pheromone trails are disrupted by external factors, as these scents can disappear due to foot traffic or other animals with distinct body odors.
In addition, they can also consider other similar scents to be a trail and begin to follow it, which means they can easily get confused between trails and become a part of the ant death circle.
Many people have tried to capture these insects in a pen circle, which seems to be a fun thing in childhood. I used to do it by drawing a circle on the page and putting an ant within it.
They consider circle boundaries as trails and begin to walk over them, which leads to a problem in escape as they feel like they are following a trail.
Targeting prey animal
They usually coordinate in foraging activities to target a bigger prey animal and carry heavier food particles that can help reduce the burden and give them a chance to kill bigger prey.
Accordingly, they surround a prey animal by covering its body from all directions, which looks like a circle of a large group of ants.
It looks like a moving circle because these ants continuously move around the prey to capture it and get a chance to sting or bite on their body.
Moreover, some other colony workers also participate in the attacking behavior and keep adding when they detect a signal from fellows.
Feeling high or drunken
They feel drunk or high by consuming excess sugary juice from rotten fruits and drinking a few drops of alcohol, which directly affects the functioning of their nervous system.
Their brain cannot perform accurately when drunk, and they lose coordination with body organs. They cannot walk properly in straight lines in such a situation and move randomly.
In addition, they can also begin to move in a circle when they consume narcotics or tobacco. Some pathogens can affect their nervous system, leading to abnormal behaviors like circling.
Exploring food source
They can run in a circle when exploring food sources, as foragers congregate around the food source, which can be a candy, a piece of chocolate, or a dead animal.
It looks like they are spinning while finding a way to reach the particle in the center. Other ants keep coming to a specific area and move round and round to get a chance to eat it.
Moreover, this behavior of running in circles relates to the exploration of food sources when a large number of foragers surround the food particle and revolve around it.
Why is it bad if ants run in circles?
It looks fascinating to see ants moving in a circle, but it can be bad for the insects that are part of the circle or an ant mill.
It is a waste of time because they move round and round by assuming that this movement leads them to a food source, but it does not happen.
In addition, this continuous running behavior consumes a lot of energy, particularly when they are not getting any food to eat during this spinning motion.
It is also known as a death spiral if a large number of ants become a part of it because it leads to the death of insects due to exhaustion.
Moreover, they cannot escape from a death spiral by themselves as they are not smart enough to break the trail, and they stop when they die.
You can see a few dead insects on the outer side of the circle after some time because a few weak insects cannot run for many hours and die due to hunger.
How long can ants run in a circle?
The time duration for which ants can run in a circle depends on their health, external conditions, overall size, and species of insects.
These insects can run for almost minutes to hours according to the number of insects and their potential to spin that are part of this spinning motion in an ant mill.
One of the largest ant death circles was around 1200 feet in circumference, and the time taken by insects to complete a single loop took almost 2.5 hours.
So, these ants keep moving round and round until all die of exhaustion, or you can stop the ant death spiral by connecting them with a new trail.
Furthermore, they cannot run for long in summer because hot weather leads to quick dehydration of their bodies and death.