Who has not, at some point in time, seen a worker ant use its jaws to carry a crumb back to a nest? Such observations are common, but it is rare to see numerous ants team up to transport a heavy food scrap that’s ten times their combined weight. How could creatures as tiny as ants possess the intelligence to carry out such a highly coordinated operation?

Unlike the vast majority of living organisms, social insects, like ants, termites, honey bees and numerous wasp species, have not evolved a sense of self-interest, and an individual worker ant or drone bee will automatically sacrifice its life for the good of the colony and queen. However, working as a team to carry heavy objects can have detrimental consequences for an entire group of ants.

For example, multiple humans often work together to carry heavy objects, like furniture, but unlike ants, each human carrier is able to turn his/her head in order to stay on course and remain oriented with the movements of the other movers. Ant movers, on the other hand, cannot turn their head to maintain a sense of direction because they use their jaws to carry items. Also, their antennae cannot receive the sensory information necessary to navigate back to a nest, as each ant’s antennae is blocked by the object being carried.

Because of this signal-blockage, ants cannot take their teammate’s cues, and therefore, cannot orient their movements as a unit. When their movements are not harmonized, the group moves astray from the nest. Interestingly, researchers have found that longhorn crazy ants are able to move as a group to carry large objects, but not necessarily by coordinating their movements.

Longhorn crazy ant workers avoid unsynchronized pulls and pushes by simply moving in the direction in which new team members pull the food item. This is an effective method, as new team members have not yet become disoriented from sensory blockage and irregular movements, and therefore, their sense of direction is most accurate. The longhorn crazy ant is an invasive species that is abundant throughout Massachusetts, but they are often confused with another similarly named invasive species, the Tawny crazy ant, which can only be found in the southernmost states. Longhorn crazy ants often infest kitchens and will feed on virtually any human food source.

Have you ever witnessed ants working as a team to carry food items out of your kitchen?