Question 3 Ant Queens and Pheromones

Mike wrote to the “Consult-Ant” with a number of questions about ants. I am going to try to answer each one in a separate post. For the original list of questions and links to all answers, visit here.

3)      I’ve been meaning to catch an ant queen, but I’ve been curious about other methods of catching one. Are there ant pheromones that can basically attract queen ants to come out of the colony? I assume that each ant species would probably have their own type of pheromones, so I’ll have to find out which species I’m planning to catch, which leads me to the next question: Where can I get these pheromones? Can I synthetically make them on my own? What differentiates certain pheromones from another? Subtleties in molecular structure?

That’s an interesting idea, Mike, but it actually works in reverse. The queen produces pheromones to attract males during the mating flight (although some species have other signals, like harvester ant queens stridulate). Once she has started a colony, usually the pheromones she produces regulate the behavior of the workers, attracting them to her. She is the most important member of the colony after all. I guess it is possible that wafting an alarm pheromone into a nest might drive out the queen, but your chances of finding her amidst the other ants? I’m not sure.

Chemists have definitely synthesized pheromones for insects, usually for those with economic importance, for example gypsy moths. The chemistry is often quite complex. The chemical structure may vary by something as simple as chirality or as complex as being a totally different molecule.

If you want to catch a queen, nothing beats learning all you can about the life history of the species you are interested in and then going out when at the time of year when swarms occur (often depends on the weather) and look for mated queens. I find queens all the time because I’m looking for ants, and queens start their colonies where other ants are successful.


Anyone else out there have any ideas for Mike?

Edit: In researching your next question I did find evidence that in carpenter ants, the males release a pheromone from their mandibular glands that signals to the female reproductives that it is time to fly from the nest and join the mating swarm. (Holldobler and Maschwitz 1965, as cited in LD Hansen and JH Klotz, Carpenter Ants of The United States and Canada). Although they would be unmated, that might be a way to entice them from the nest. The other problem I foresee is that the unmated queens would need to be physiologically ready to go on their mating flight or the pheromone wouldn’t work.

See the next post for more information on pheromones.