Ants are ubiquitous insects that seem to find their way into every corner of our homes and gardens. Despite their small size, ants have a remarkable ability to withstand and survive all kinds of environmental threats. One of the most common questions people have about ants is whether they can drown when submerged in water.
The answer is more complex than you might think. While ants do need oxygen to survive, the way they breathe allows them to hold their breath for an astoundingly long time. Their specialized adaptations let them not only survive underwater for up to two weeks, but also build living rafts and even dive below the surface in search of food.
So how exactly do ants breathe, and what allows them to go without air for so long? Let’s take a closer look at the surprising mechanisms that allow ants to survive underwater.
How Do Ants Breathe?
To understand how ants can hold their breath, you first need to know how their respiratory system works. And it turns out, ants don’t breathe in the same way humans and other mammals do.
Ants Don’t Have Lungs
The most important fact to understand about ants is that they don’t have lungs or any kind of respiratory organ. Because of their tiny size, there simply isn’t room in their bodies for a complex system like lungs.
Instead, ants breathe through a series of holes on the sides of their exoskeletons called spiracles. The spiracles connect to tubes inside the ant’s body that distribute oxygen directly to their tissues and cells, while also removing carbon dioxide.
Breathing Through Spiracles
This method of breathing through spiracles is common to all insect species, not just ants. The spiracles allow oxygen-rich air to enter the insect’s body, where it then diffuses into the tissues via the tracheal tubes connected to the spiracles.
Insects actively ventilate their bodies by using muscles to open and close the spiracles as needed, allowing them to regulate their oxygen intake. This is different from mammals, where breathing is a passive process.
Closing Spiracles Underwater
The key advantage of breathing through spiracles is that ants and other insects can close them when needed. For example, when submerged in water, an ant will quickly close its spiracles to prevent water from entering its respiratory system.
Closing the spiracles also helps prevent valuable moisture and oxygen from escaping the ant’s body. Thanks to this ability, ants can temporarily “hold their breath” when conditions demand it.
How Long Can Ants Hold Their Breath?
So we know ants don’t use lungs to breathe, but how long can they survive without oxygen when their spiracles are closed? The answer depends on a few key factors.
Metabolism and Breath-Holding
In general, the lower an animal’s metabolism, the less oxygen they require. Ants have very slow metabolisms compared to mammals like humans. Their slow energy use allows them to get by on less frequent oxygen intake.
As a result, most ant species can hold their breath for a minimum of 24 hours. Some primitive ant queens can even survive for two weeks or longer without oxygen due to their extremely slow metabolisms.
Breath-Holding Varies By Species
While 24 hours is the average, the exact breath-holding time varies significantly between different ant species.
Some primitive ants living in highly humid tropical environments can only hold their breath for several hours before needing fresh air. Their high-activity lifestyles demand more frequent oxygen intake.
On the other hand, certain specialized ant species have adaptations that allow them to hold their breath for two weeks or more when necessary. These adaptations allow the ants to search for food underwater without drowning.
For example, the diving ants found in the tropical pitcher plants of Borneo can plunge into the plants’ water-filled cups and walk along the bottom searching for unfortunate insects that fell in and drowned. Their ability to hold their breath for extended periods is essential for their unusual underwater lifestyle.
Do Ants Float? Specialized Adaptations for Water
Ants may not be able to breathe underwater, but they have some remarkable physical and behavioral adaptations that allow them to survive when flooded. These adaptations explain why ants are so hard to drown.
Ants Float Due to Surface Tension
The small size and light weight of ants means they can float on top of water, rather than sinking below the surface. Their tiny bodies don’t break the water’s surface tension the way a larger animal would.
This allows ants to essentially walk on water, floating on the surface. When a nest is flooded, this gives the ants precious time to wait out the waters rather than drowning immediately. It also allows floating ant colonies to survive long periods until they can reach dry land.
Raft-Building by Fire Ants
Some ants have even more remarkable adaptations when it comes to surviving floods. One great example is the fire ant, which can quickly assemble into a large floating raft using their own bodies when faced with rising waters.
The ants will interlock their limbs and mouths to form a big mass. This allows the raft containing hundreds or thousands of ants to float together on the water’s surface. The queen and larvae will be moved to the center of the raft, keeping them safe.
Fire ant rafts can float for weeks on end, carrying the entire colony until the waters recede or dry land is reached. This amazing survival mechanism helps fire ant colonies recover rapidly after floods.
Diving Ants of Borneo
While most ants float or avoid water, there are some species uniquely adapted for an aquatic lifestyle. As mentioned earlier, the diving ants found in the tropical pitcher plants of Borneo actively dive below the surface and walk underwater to find food.
These ants actually swim and walk along the bottom of the pitcher plant’s water-filled interior hunting for insect prey. Their ability to hold their breath for two weeks and swim makes these ants specially adapted for their unique aquatic niche.
Thanks to these remarkable adaptations, ants are champion flood survivors and can withstand being submerged for incredibly long periods before drowning. But could you actively drown an ant if you wanted to? Let’s look at some methods next.
Can You Drown Ants in Water?
Given how adept ants are at surviving floods, you might wonder if it’s possible to actively drown them intentionally. It turns out that just dumping ants in water isn’t an effective way to kill them. Their adaptations allow them to survive immersion for days or weeks.
However, there are some techniques you can use to drown ants more effectively.
Plain Water is Not Effective
Because ants can float and hold their breath for so long, simply immersing them in plain water is not going to be effective. Unless you can fully submerge an entire ant colony 24/7, they will survive.
Once removed from the water, ants can simply reopen their spiracles and resume breathing. The water will also quickly drain away from most ant nests, giving them air access again.
Boiling Water Can Work
While plain water won’t drown ants, boiling water is much more deadly. Exposure to scalding water will quickly kill many ants before they can close their spiracles. The high temperature essentially cooks them.
However, pouring boiling water into an ant mound isn’t guaranteed to kill the entire colony. Its effects are limited only to the ants you manage to hit directly. Repeated boiling water treatments may be needed to have a significant impact.
Soapy Water is More Effective
A better way to drown ants is by using soapy water instead of plain water. Mixing a bit of dish soap or other detergent into the water helps it penetrate and drown ants in two ways:
- The soap interferes with the water-resistant membranes on the ant’s exoskeleton, causing them to soak up the water.
- The soap blocks the ant’s spiracles, preventing them from closing fully. Even a small amount of water entering the spiracles will drown the ant.
The soap essentially disables the ant’s usual protections against drowning. Unable to keep water out, the ants will die from a combination of water intoxication and suffocation. Within a day, an entire ant colony exposed to soapy water will be dead.
Other Drowning Methods
In addition to hot water and soapy water, there are a few other liquid solutions that can be used to drown ants:
- Salt water – The salt causes the ants to dehydrate, while also blocking their spiracles.
- Vinegar water – The acidic vinegar disrupts the ant’s normal pH balance, killing them in hours.
- Essential oils – Oils like peppermint block the spiracles, leading to suffocation.
- Alcohol solutions – Ethanol can penetrate exoskeletons and kill ants quickly.
However, keep in mind that widespread spraying of ant nests with any liquid solution will also likely kill other insects and possibly harm plants.
Are Ants Harmful to Gardens?
Before you rush to drown every ant in your yard, it’s important to understand the balance of nature. Although ants can be a nuisance, they aren’t necessarily “pests” in a garden.
Ants actually provide valuable pest control by preying on other insects that can damage plants. Their tunnels also help aerate soil. Removing ants entirely can allow more harmful insects to multiply.
Unless ants are harming plants or invading your home, it’s usually best to just leave them be outside. Their presence helps maintain the local ecosystem. A knee-jerk reaction of drowning them can do more harm than good in the long run.
Can you suffocate ants in a jar?
Placing ants in a sealed jar with a limited air supply will not suffocate them quickly. The amount of air in even a small jar provides enough oxygen to keep ants alive for days or weeks.
Trapped ants are more likely to die from starvation before they run out of air. To suffocate ants in captivity requires a much smaller enclosure.
How do ants get water?
Ants need moisture to survive, but they get most of their required water intake from the foods they eat. Their diet of nectar, plant sap, and insect prey provides enough hydration that they rarely need to actively stop and drink water.
However, ants in very dry regions may soak up water droplets on surfaces when available. A few species have even evolved to swim underwater to directly access liquid water.
Can ants survive in flood waters?
While individual ants can float and survive temporarily in flood waters, entire colonies are threatened when floods last more than a few days. Their underground nests become saturated, food supplies are wiped out, and larvae can drown without oxygen. Some ant species have evolved flood-adaptive behaviors like raft-building, but floods still pose a major threat.
How long can a queen ant hold her breath?
The queen is the most crucial member of an ant colony. Queens can survive without oxygen longer than worker ants due to their larger size and slower metabolism. While workers may last 24 hours, queen ants have been observed surviving two weeks or more without air underwater by closing their spiracles and entering a dormant state.
Do ants need to come up for air when underwater?
Ants don’t have “tanks” of stored air like some aquatic insects do. They survive extended underwater periods by closing their spiracles and slowing their metabolism to require less oxygen intake. But they will eventually deplete their internal oxygen reserves and need to reopen their spiracles above water to get fresh air.
Can ants be poisoned by drinking soapy water?
Soapy water is effective at drowning ants because the soap molecules interfere with the protective waxy layer on their exoskeleton, causing water intoxication. The soap also blocks their breathing spiracles. However, the concentration of soap needs to be fairly weak, around 2-3% solution, to avoid just poisoning the ants.
Why do ants march in lines when it floods?
When ant nests flood, the ants will evacuate in an orderly fashion along specific pheromone trails. Marching in single-file lines allows them to move efficiently without confusion to reach high ground while minimizing drowning deaths. The lines also facilitate raft formation.