Like humans, ants spread diseases to other ants. Ants are not the only insects that can fall ill from disease. Basically any sort of insect you can think of can become infected with parasites. Parasitic infections are particularly problematic for social insects since social insects belong to colonies where individual insects are crowded together within a single nest. Luckily, insects, especially social insects, have adapted to discern between infected colony members and healthy colony members. Being able to make this differentiation saves colonies from dying of mass infection. However, there is one particular insect that is not very good at discerning between healthy and parasitized colony members. This insect is the carpenter ant.


Carpenter ants are in the habit of picking out nestmates. These nestmates are always other carpenter ants. When carpenter ants select nestmates they make sure that their picks are not infected with disease. Normally, this prevents infections from taking over entire colonies, but one type of parasitic infection can infect carpenter ants, and healthy ants have been seen selecting these infected ants as nestmates. For some reason a parasitic infection caused by a particular fungus can infect carpenter ants without any of their counterparts knowing about it.


When infected ants threaten a colony, healthy ants will attack and kill the infected ant. However, the parasitized carpenter ants are being let into the colony. The infected ants tend to become concentrated around the entrance to a colony, which may indicate that they are being excluded. This could mean that the infected ants are eventually being recognized as infectious by other ants. It would be unusual if the carpenter ants were completely unable to discern between healthy and sick ants. Bees, termites and ants are all able to pinpoint their infected counterparts. For example, individual bees can tell when another bee has contracted deformed wing virus. This extra sensory perception allows for social insects to maintain social immunity. If social insects had never evolved the ability to sense sick insects, then colonies would die out from infection regularly.


Do you think that one social insect species can detect a sick member of another species?


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