The science of why some people smell ants

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/11/28/the-science-of-why-some-people-smell-ants.html

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I did not know ants had a smell until this article, and my wife gave me the same look as the woman in the tick toc video because it never occurred to her that people could not smell them.

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I will admit that I don’t know if I can smell ants because as soon as I see more than one in my home or tent I become the Orkin man and declare total war, and my garden and outdoors are full of all sorts of smells. Now I’m mildly curious, but not enough for a détente.

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I have the genetics that let me smell all the things. Ants, asparagus, cyanide, etc. You’re not missing any important experiences.

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A lot of insects have some kind of scent but faint. You have to hold them close to your nose, put them in your mouth – which for the record I have never done deliberately – or get a very large number together to notice. I know red ants have a scent, but I have only ever noticed it trying to catch them with an insect pooter. I wonder how strong it is for other people?

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That feeling when, in your own experience, the word “poot” meant a small fart.

tenor

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I tried sniffing ants once. Wasn’t good. A sinus full of ants can be hellishly itchy! :wink:

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Some people, you say?

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If they ever do a modern remake of Them! I hope they use this as a plot device. The monster ants have a much easier time devouring humans who can’t smell them!

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Me, who has nasal polyps, and can’t smell efficiently…

giphy(5)

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Strong enough that I catch a whiff and know when Argentine ants have invaded my crawl space again and it’s time to spray them.

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In my experience, it depends on the species. In our area, we have very small, black ants that have an intense aroma. You don’t have to kill them to smell them (but if you do kill them, the smell is even stronger.) Some slightly larger ants, also black but slightly paler, have the same aroma but much weaker.

Probably worth mentioning that the smaller species is very aggressive, so they’re probably spraying venom all the time.

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A trap full of dead wasps makes an amazingly horrible stench.

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Not sure that I’ve ever been able to smell ants in free space - the Argentines that are rampant in this area have a distinctive lemony flavor, and can imagine that I’ve detected that a bit when enough are gathered.

Was just going to say the same. I associate their odor with the sensation of the stings, very unpleasant.

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Definitely varies depending on the kind of ant. I associate the smell of ants with spring, when they start getting busy (or something – I know next to nothing about ants but can certainly smell em)

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Pff. Call me when you can smell ents.

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I never knew what formic acid smelled like until I got an Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm one Christmas. The ant farm was a plastic affair with some kind of light gray porous soil that you’d pre-moisten. They would mail the ants a week after you mailed in the card: a flexible plastic tube filled with about 50 bright red-orange harvester ants.

The ants would dig all kinds to tunnels and chambers, and would take the small kernels of grain and carefully store them for a few weeks before going completely mad. Apparently a colony of ants w/o a queen and w/o a wide area to range over goes insane and begins to wage war against each other. At the end of this macabre experience there were only 2 survivors and lots of little ant parts strewn about.

Needless to say I got lots of good whiffs of ants both living and dead.

To me, formic acid has got a soapy, aftershave kind of smell. By “aftershave” I mean the strong, brutish, woody smelling note, minus all the citrusy notes. I verified this in my high school chemistry classroom by sneaking in and wafting a bit of concentrated formic acid which really took me back to my ant-farm month.

There is probably NO temperate area left on the planet that is NOT infested with argentine ants. One of the most successful invasive insect species on the planet. I will concur they’ve got a citrus tang, but with a god awful peppery finish.

I am now plagued by odorous house ants, which when crushed, smell like chocolate-mint poo. They’re actually a very clever species of indigenous ant – after every over-winter they send out little troops of 20-50 ants headed by a queen on foraging missions, often inside my house. They’ll set up little encampments under the floorboards or walls and forage for awhile. If there’s no food, they’ll pack up and move to a different part of the house or back outside when the weather gets warmer. So it’s fun to track their movements. One time I had about 4 little separate ant troupes moving about.

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That is nothing! Try smelling uncles!

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I can smell asparagus pee, but I don’t think I can smell ants. Which is good, I think? Asparagus pee is kind of funny, at least. Huhuhuh stinky pee.

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