Ants on Your… Barcodes?

If you’ve ever seen A Bug’s Life or Antz, there’s no doubt you’re impressed with the an ants’ colonization tactics. But how can such small insects with such small colonies build such complex societies?

A team of Swiss scientists recently glued barcodes to hundreds of ants living in laboratory colonies. The barcodes allowed the scientists to record the ants’ movements for over a month. The position and orientation of every ant was counted, twice a second.

Thanks to some help from the barcodes, researchers found that aunts divide and conquer based on work groups—one group taking care of young ants, another finding food and another cleaning. While other studies had come to this conclusion before, this study delved a bit deeper; analyzing how the ants know which groups they are a part of.

The researchers suspected age played a role in the division of labor, so they tagged the ants as they emerged from their pupal state, with each week getting its own color code. By analyzing the color codes, researchers discovered that younger ants nursed the young and older ants were foragers.

In addition to the division of labor, researchers used the barcoded ants to identify how news traveled—how did ants discover where there was food or a threat. They found that if one ant had important news, it would take an hour of ant-to-ant interactions for the majority of the colony to be informed.

While barcoding ants did help scientists discover the who, where, and when, there’s still no real answer as to why ants behave in this way. Perhaps that will have to be wait until we put RFID chips in ants… kidding.

barcode ants