How Ants Handle Pandemics

Did you know that ants can and do catch deadly pathogens, leading to epidemics within (and sometimes spreading to other) each colony? 

Ants are quite social creatures, in many ways just like us humans. They each have roles, live in close quarters, and constantly are brushing up on one another. 

Deadly pathogens love social creatures because through them they can spread to more creatures faster (ie. humans, ants, apes, etc.). 

Ants have developed a standard, genetic procedure for what to do when an ant gets sick. 

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Our video version of this post contains fascinating footage of ants & micro-organisms at work, which you can watch by clicking HERE now. 

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The Study

Researchers wanted to study what happened when ants came into contact with a deadly pathogen. 

In today’s post we will be reviewing the fascinating study published in Institute of Science and Technology Austria. 

Select ants came into contact with the pathogenic fungus Metarhizium, which has the potential to wipe out the entire ant colony. 

Here’s what happened. 


Ants have a remarkable ability to smell- anyone who has left food out in their kitchen can attest to how fast these buggers arm up to scavenge your leftovers. 

Ants are capable of smelling when another has been infected, even before serious symptoms start to show! 

When an ant is infected, it works less, and other ants pick up the slack. Also, all of the other ants obsessively groom (or clean) the ant over and over. 

This method of intensive cleaning- similar to disinfecting & aggressive hand-washing- has been proven to be highly effective for ants when stopping an epidemic from occurring. 

More often than not, relaxing, distancing, and cleaning was a highly effective method of stopping infection of the individual ant. 

But what if symptoms started to appear? 

Symptoms & Colony Response 

Ants that appeared like they were to develop into worse cases were forced to leave the colony, either voluntarily, or by force. 

Older ants typically resigned to their fate, whereas younger ants had to be more forcibly removed. 

Slightly symptomatic ants were observed naturally distancing themselves from their peers, and their peers also stayed away from the infected ant. 

Extreme Measures

What shocked researchers was the extreme measures that an ant colony would take if an ant got infected. If the cleaning measures were not effective, and the ant did not leave the colony…

Infected ants may be murdered by their peers. 

After an infection, an ant would be obsessively cleaned. If this proved ineffective, the ants would then turn on the infected, and kill them. 

Any pupae believed to be infected would also be killed immediately. 

While extreme, for the ant colony as a whole this proved to be a relatively effective method of protecting the ant colony! 

Similarities to Human Immune Systems

Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the behavior of ants is that it highly mimics that of our own immune system. 

If a cell becomes infected with a virus and is beyond saving, our immune response actually kills our own cell before it can create more versions of the virus (thus allowing more cells to be infected). 

The social distancing aspect of ants is also parallel to humanity on a global scale, though thankfully we don’t execute any infected people! 

This fascinating study has helped researchers understand insect behavior, especially when it comes into contact with potential epidemics, and also led to more questions, as many of their behaviors parallel that of the immune system (killing of infected), and even humanity on a global scale (social distancing/withdrawal when infected). 

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