Ant Color Vision


I keep companotus herculeanus (carpinter ants) [Camponotus herculeanus carpenter ants] i’ve got the queen to nest in a bit of rotton wood in a hollow next to the glass i want to be able to look at the nest so other ant keepers have told me to put red film over the glass as ants can’t see red light but some say they can do you know? if not do you lnow how to test if they can.thanks . …MARK

Thanks for the great question, Mark. Looking for the answer led to some cool information about ant vision.

The short answer is keeping ants in dark red light is still a good way to observe them under low light intensities. But there is evidence that ants may be able to see red, especially scarlet red, under certain conditions.

The famous bee biologist, Karl von Frisch, reported early in the 20th century that honey bees could see color. In fact, he was able to establish that the bees could see blue, yellow and green, as well as ultraviolet and polarized light (which we can’t see). Honey bees did not appear to be able to see red.

Because ants and bees are closely related, everyone assumed their vision was similar.

However, the eyes of different species of ants vary in size and complexity. For example, the compound eyes of the worker ants of your species, Camponotus herculeanus, are moderate in size. Notice the three small, shiny  ocelli at the top of the head. Those are used for vision as well.

Camponotus herculeanus Photographer: April Nobile Date Uploaded: 11/30/2006 Copyright: Copyright, 2000-2009. Licensing: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 (cc-by-sa-3.0) Creative Commons License

In contrast, the workers of Gigantiops destructor have huge eyes.

Gigantiops destructor Photographer: Michael Branstetter Date Uploaded: 07/20/2009 Copyright: Copyright, 2000-2009. Licensing: Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 (cc-by-sa-3.0) Creative Commons License

Recently scientists have begun to check ants’ ability to see colors, as well as learn more about how their eyes work.

In 2004, Deprickere, Fresneau and Deneubourg found that worker Lasius niger ants tending brood behaved differently in response to red light, as compared to foraging workers. Foraging workers were less likely to aggregate (clump together) when exposed to red light in contrast to darkness, whereas workers tending brood showed no differences in aggregation. These results suggested some sort of ability to detect red light.

By doing choice tests (operant conditioning) with workers of Myrmica sabuleti in 2007, Marie-Claire Cammaerts was able to find that ants were slightly sensitive to red at high light intensity (10,000 lux), but not at low light intensity (600 lux). There seemed to be differences between scarlet red (which has a shorter wavelength) and dark red. Dark red was not detected at either intensity.

The conclusion I make is that the darker the red and the lower the intensity of light, the less the chance that ants can detect it.

If you are curious to find out more, you can always do your own experiments. Figure out some measure of behavior, such how many worker ants bunch up together (aggregate), and then see how it changes under different types of light.

Good luck, and let me know what happens.

For more information on ant vision “see:”

Roberto Keller at the American Museum of Natural History has an excellent overview of ant vision at Homology Weekly: Compound Eyes.

Marie-Claire Cammaerts. 2007. Colour vision in the ant Myrmica sabuleti Meinert, 1861 (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News 10: 41-50 available at…/mn10_41-50_non-printable.pdf as a non printable .pdf file.

Stephanie Depickere, Dominique Fresneau, Jean-Louis Deneubourg, The influence of red light on the aggregation of two castes of the ant, Lasius niger, Journal of Insect Physiology, Volume 50, Issue 7, July 2004, Pages 629-635.

Robert Kretz. 1979. A behavioural analysis of colour vision in the ant Cataglyphis bicolor (Formicidae, Hymenoptera). J. Comp. Physiol. 131:  217-233.

Carlos Martinoya1, Susana Bloch, Dora F. Ventura and Niélsy M. Puglia. Spectral efficiency as measured by ERG in the ant (Atta sexdens rubropilosa). Journal of Comparative Physiology A: Neuroethology, Sensory, Neural, and Behavioral Physiology
Volume 104, Number 2 / June, 1975: 205-210.

(Note: As I mentioned previously, I have been the “Consult-Ant” on the Leaping from the Box website. I answer questions about ants and ant farms. From now on I will post the answers here, and when Karen has time she will also post the answers on her site.)