Ants take sick days!

Ants take sick days! Bugs infected with a deadly fungus steer clear of their co-workers to stop the spread of disease

  • Fungus Metarhizium brunneum kills the black garden ant within 48 hours
  • Infected insects stay away from their coworkers and keep clear of the nest 
  • Strategy halts the spread of disease in order to protect key colony members

Ants take ‘sick days’ to protect the rest of the colony from deadly infections.

That’s according to a new study, which found that the common black garden ant steers clear of its co-workers when infected by a killer fungus.

The strategy halts the spread of the disease in order to protect the most vulnerable and important members of the colony from infection, scientists said.

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Researchers studying the black garden ant (file photo) found that the bugs take ‘sick days’ to protect the rest of the colony from deadly infections

Researchers at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland used an automated ant-tracking system to study colonies of black garden ants.

The species is found across Europe, as well as parts of North America, South America, Australia and Asia.

Their workers are split into foragers, which collect food outside of the nest, and nurses, which care for the brood inside the nest.

Foragers are most likely to pick up infections, but interact less with other ants, and rarely come into contact with those inside the nest.


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The researchers infected some of the ants with Metarhizium brunneum, a highly contagious fungus that kills the bugs in less than 48 hours.

Within a day of exposure, infected worker ants spent more time outside of the nest, and stayed away from their co-workers.

Foragers not exposed to the disease took more care to isolate themselves, and nurses carried the brood deeper into the nest.

Simulations showed that the tactics reduces the spread of infection throughout a colony, keeping the queen safe from the clutches of the killer fungus.

Researchers infected ants with Metarhizium brunneum, a highly contagious fungus that kills the bugs in less than 48 hours. Within a day of exposure, infected worker ants spent more time outside of the nest, and stayed away from their co-workers (stock image)

It remains unclear how the ants diagnose an infection, but they may be able to notice fungal spores present on themselves or their co-workers.

Researchers suggested humans could learn a thing or two about quarantine healthcare from social insects like ants.

‘I think we could learn from the social insects about ways to decrease transmission of disease at the scale of the population,’ lead author Dr Nathalie Stroeymeyt told New Scientist.

The biologist did, however, concede that the ants are good role models only up to a point.

‘We can’t really ask sick people to sacrifice themselves by dying in isolation like the ants do.’

The research was published in the journal Science.

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