Humans sleep a lot… or at least we’re supposed to—as an adult, we need 7-9 hours of sleep every single night, if we want to be at peak performance. But how does that stack up to other animals? A grizzly bear can hibernate anywhere between five and seven months without eating, drinking, or getting up to use the bathroom. Domestic cats can clock 12-16 hours every single day. But how do human sleep patterns compare to some of the littlest fellas of the earth, ants? Have you ever noticed how ants seem to always be moving? Do ants sleep? Well, the answer is a soft yes, and they’re particularly fascinating because they have a very different sleep schedule than many other insects. How and why do ants sleep the way they do? Let’s find out!
Do Ants Sleep?
Well… yes! But not like we humans do, that’s for sure. We understand sleep to be a period of elongated rest that we enjoy in order to refresh ourselves for the following day. Ants don’t sleep like that, and different species of ants get varied amounts of sleep. Overall, however, their behavior resembles napping more than sleeping. And they nap a lot.
In a fascinating study of the fire ant Solenopsis invicta by Deby Cassill and her co-researchers, studies showed that on average, a worker ant will get 4 hours of rest in a single 24-hour period at irregular intervals, taking up to 450 micro-naps. As it turns out, this is a survival mechanism that helps keep an ant colony progressing. "The large number and short naps by workers means that jobs in the nest never go unattended," says Cassill. "There is always a worker available when a need arises. When work is slow, workers sleep more." We often refer to the workplace as “the rat race” but boy do rats have it good in comparison to worker ants!
Now we know that ants have strange sleeping patterns, but even within one colony, do ants sleep in different ways? Why, yes! Queen ants live a much more luxurious (or lazy?) sleep life, with longer, deeper sleep cycles that can add up to as much as 9 hours in a single day—that’s more than twice that of a worker ant! In contrast to the worker’s 450 one-minute naps, queens tend to sleep for six-minutes at a time ninety times per day. This allows them the rest they need to lay eggs. In fact, a single army ant queen can produce 300,000 eggs in just several days. It’s not easy being the queen!
Sleep Deprivation and Lifespan
A worker ant gets by on less than half of the sleep that a queen ant enjoys and that sleep deprivation drastically affects the lifespan of the average ant. Workers, with their low sleep and seemingly endless work ethic, typically live between 6 and 12 months. A queen, on the other hand, with her nine hour sleep sessions, can live as long as 6 years, a staggering lifespan in comparison (it’s not even the maximum, some ant species’ queens can live to 45 years)!
Let the extremely noticeable effect of sleep deprivation on ants, the difference between 1/2 and 6 years of living, be a testament to the power of sleep! Research on humans shows that even 1 lost hour of sleep per night takes a notable toll on our ability to focus and concentrate, as experienced every year during daylight savings. And we also know that you can’t “catch up on sleep” and just sleep an extra hour the next night. It’s a false equivalence, sure, comparing ants to humans, but let it be a reminder to get some extra sleep—you can probably use it!
Do Ants Count Sheep?
Dreaming is fascinating—in humans it mainly happens when we’re in deep sleep, experiencing REM (rapid eye movement), when our brains are at their most active. Do ants sleep and dream the same way we do, despite their strange sleep schedules? In the same study by Deby Cassill, the research team noticed that when a queen ant, instead of moving her eyes like humans do, twitched her antennae during some of her sleep sessions. This was aptly named “Rapid Antennal Movement” (RAM) sleep, but the question remains—what do queen ants dream about? Perhaps we will never know.
In 1986, Basing and McCluskey performed an experiment using brain activity recorders on black, red, and soldier ants to determine if their deeper resting periods actually consisted of what we understand to be sleep, rather than a different sort of non-sleep resting. What they found was a steep decline in brain wave fluctuations during these period, supporting the hypothesis that ants do, in fact, sleep. Interestingly enough, soldier ants showed a higher level of brain activity during their deep resting phase, indicating that perhaps during sleep, soldier ants dream, as queens do.
Most Bugs Sleep or Rest
If you’re wondering, “do ants sleep” you might be curious about other bugs! Here’s a rundown of some common household critters. University of Wisconsin biologist Barrett Klein has studied insect sleep, especially bees. “Paper wasps, cockroaches, praying mantises, and fruit flies are among insects that doze. Fruit fly sleep is even similar to mammal sleep, since the flies respond to sleep-inducing chemicals and caffeine, just like people,” she noted in a National Geographic article. Experiments also showed that when fruit flies don’t get enough sleep, they subsequently require more sleep (REM rebound), something that might feel pretty familiar if you’ve enjoyed a late night recently and found yourself clamoring for an extra hour or two the next day.
Do Ants Sleep? Of course!
Worker ant sleep is so vastly different than our own that it can be difficult to imagine an ant would feel well-rested at all while taking hundreds of one-minute naps per day instead of a long rest—but it’s not unusual. As mammals, we’re bound to a quite different sleep structure, one that requires more hours stacked up in a line. And guess what? Just like us, ants require relatively consistent sleep—and from our somewhat limited studies on ant sleep, it seems that the ants that don’t get as much sleep (workers), don’t live as long as their well-rested counterparts (queens). Let that be a lesson next time you’re thinking about pulling an all nighter or skipping a few hours to party longer. Instead, treat yourself like a queen and get that sleep!