Do Ants Sleep?
Anyone who has ever observed the relentless march of ants might find it difficult to picture the persistent pests at rest. But even ants need to sleep, perchance to dream, and the amount of zzz’s that an ant needs to catch depends on its rank in the colony hierarchy.
Believe it or not, there are people who get paid to watch ants sleep, and one of them is Deby Cassill, a researcher at the University of South Florida. Cassill, and several colleagues, raised a colony of fire ants in a lab to determine the insects’ sleep patterns. Like contestants on the TV show Big Brother, the 3 queens, 30 workers, and 30 larvae were filmed 24 hours a day. The results were surprising!
Since ants live underground, their sleep patterns are not affected by light and dark. Instead, workers just nap when they’re tired. And they get tired a lot. A worker fire ant takes about 250 naps a day, each averaging one minute in length. That’s one power nap every 6 minutes, adding up to more than 4 hours of sleep every day. But the naps do not unfold like clockwork; the ants sleep at irregular intervals and 80 percent of the workers are awake at any given time. That keeps the nest humming when things are busy. During slow periods, the workers sleep longer.
As for the 3 queens in Cassill’s colony, they slept for 6-minute intervals around 90 times a day. That equals 9 hours of sleep every day. And the 3 queens synchronized their naps so they all dozed off at the same time. As Cassill explains, “It’s very cozy. The synchrony of queens occurs because, like hound dogs, they pile atop each other when they sleep. When awake, they separate.”
Cassill even discovered that the queens might dream, indicated by their antennae which quivered during periods of deep sleep. The rapid antennae movement, or RAM, is equated to the rapid eye movement, or REM experienced by humans. One can only speculate what queen ants dream of but they have plenty of time to think. Fire ant queens live about 6 years while workers only last 6 months. Queen ants of other species can live as long as 45 years. As everyone knows, it’s good to be queen, and that’s especially true for queen ants whose sleeping habits just might help them live longer lives.