Do Ants Sleep?

Ant and droplets“Do ants sleep?” This question has plagued entomologists for almost as long as the science has existed. Pest controllers have also studied them extensively in our attempt to rid our clients of infestations. Ever since we started observing these industrious little insects, ants have inspired and intrigued, but also plagued us. They are the workaholics of the insect world. They don’t seem to ever stop, constantly running around. How do they accomplish this? Do they never sleep? We attempt to provide an answer and satiate your appetite for knowledge and interesting facts from the ant world!

Ants do sleep, but not how you might think

Research into ant sleeping habits has yielded a stunning discovery - ants do sleep, but not like we imagined. Ant sleep patterns are heavily dependent on the role, with the queens getting far more sleep both in terms of quantity and quality. This might serve as an explanation as to why queen ants live exponentially longer than their subjects.

Sleeping patterns are also related to the species, with fire ants being the most well-known. There is still a lot we’re not quite clear on, but we’ve gained significant insight into the basics of ant sleep. We also have a pretty good idea how they keep their colonies running through their sleep cycles.

Worker sleep cycle

Ant on a leafFire ants sleep cycle is not dependent on light, because they live underground. It has more to do with the activity in the colony. Workers don’t have a regular sleep schedule. They function thanks to a sequence of short naps over the course of the day. These naps last for less than a minute, but they can reach up to 250 a day, which gives workers a little over 4 hours of inactivity for 24 hours.

This is not “sleep” the way we understand it. Workers do not go into deep sleep. The closest thing we have to this type of inactivity is “power naps” where we don’t sleep deeply, but doze off just for a little while.

Sleep has 4 distinct stages, with the first one being light sleep. Worker ant inactivity loosely resembles this type of sleep, though it’s not exactly the same (considering the fact that our brains are vastly different).

Workers coordinate among themselves in order to ensure no more than 20% of them are dozing off at once. They need to keep the pipeline running. This leaves the other 80% of the colony active at any given moment. Astounding level of efficiency rivaling even the most structured human work ethic.  It serves to explain why ants always seem to be active - because most of them are, most of the time.

Perhaps this is the reason why worker fire ant workers only live for a few months, whereas the queen can live for years. It is highly unlikely the irregular sleep schedules of workers help to prolong their lives. However, we are not yet fully aware of the biological function of sleep, so we can’t be certain this is the only reason. More research in both ant life expectancy and sleeping habits is needed before we can make such grand claims. All we can say for sure is they are quick to spread, so ant control is a good idea as soon as you notice an emerging problem. 

Queen sleep cycle  

fire ant queen

Image source: Shutterstock / By sunipix55

Queens are a lot lazier. They also sleep multiple times a day, though unlike workers, they have several distinct sleep stages and can actually enter deeper sleep. Some researchers even suspect it’s possible they dream during the deepest sleep stage.

While workers scour around and take care of the colony and the offspring, the queen usually sleeps in regular intervals. This is the first big difference and provides a striking contrast to the irregular worker sleep schedule.

Second big difference is queens sleep longer. A lot longer. Not only do they total more than twice the sleep of workers, or around 9 hours, but they do it in longer intervals. Queens take fewer naps, but instead of dozing off for under a minute, they sleep for 6 minutes at a time, on average. They take their beauty sleep 90 times a day.

The third and final difference is queens have two different patterns of sleep. One is relatively close to how workers doze off, but for longer periods of time. They can easily wake from their slumber. Their antennae are semi-raised, so they are still relatively aware of their surroundings. The other one is what we could call “deep sleep” - their antennae are fully folded and queens are a lot harder to wake. Also, they often quiver their antennae. Researches consider it possible these movements are analogous to the rapid eye movements (REM) stage of sleep when we dream. Is it possible queens also have the ability to dream? Further research is required, but it’s not out of the question. If that turned out to be the case, it would completely change the way we see sleep and dreams, alike.

Why is ant sleep like this?

Fire ant macroWorkers are disposable. Queens are far more important, which is why we suspect the sleeping cycles are what they are. While workers take care of all the work and take all the risks, the queen is free to live a long and undisturbed existence whilst producing generation after generation for the colony.

Importance of function is also related to life expectancy, with drones (male ants) having the shortest lives of only a few weeks. This makes perfect sense considering they only serve one function - procreational. They sleep the least of all.

It is not yet known in what way ants are aware how many of their brethren are currently napping. This impossible level of efficiency could explain why infestations are so quick to develop and why ants are often difficult to deal with. The pest control industry has been dealing with ants for a very long time and we’ve become more effective over the years. However, we always marvel at how quickly an infestation can happen.

We hope this answered your question. Check out our website for more interesting facts about pests!