Thanks to TikTok, many are wondering: do ants smell bad?
And if you’re still lost, let us fill you in. In the original clip, the TikTok creator asked the audience if they could smell the “disgusting” scent of dead bugs on the sidewalk.
Wait, Ants Smell? This Is Why You May Not Be Able To Smell Them
And in the comment section, many agreed that they could smell the gross stench but a large number of people commented that they had no idea what most people were talking about.
If you are in the latter group, there is a good chance you just haven’t been paying too much attention.
Many common species of ants give off pungent smells when they are in danger, squished, or otherwise dead, according to Clint Penick, who is an assistant professor at Kennesaw State University and ant researcher.
The most common type of ant that most people find in their homes on the East Coast and in the Midwest is called the odorous house ant. And when these bugs are squished, it releases a pheromone that smells similar to blue cheese.
This odorous chemical belongs to a group of chemical compounds called methyl ketones. It’s also produced by the Penicillium mold that grows on rotting coconuts and it’s what gives blue cheese its distinctive, pungent odor.
But that is not the only smell these bugs produce. Some species, including carpenters, spray formic acid. Formic acid is a caustic chemical that smells a lot like vinegar and these bugs release this when they feel threatened.
Citronella bugs are named for the distinctive citrusy scent they often produce, while trap-jaw ants release a chocolatey smell when squished. And when bugs die of natural causes, they also release oleic acid, so they “smell a little something like olive oil,” according to Penick.
So why do so many smell? Well in most species of bugs, these chemicals are produced as a defense mechanism to ward off predators.
“Most of the common ones, like the blue cheese smell, are to make the ants distasteful, and functions maybe as an alarm pheromone to let other ants know that there’s danger nearby,” says Penick. “The citronella one is the same, it wards off predators. Formic acid literally burns you. In high doses, formic acid-producing ants can even chase off bears.”
With a background in the creative and educational fields, Amelia Finefrock is freelance writer, singer-songwriter and nanny based in Chicago.
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