Ants stacking up their dead on Trix cereal surprised and delighted social media users over Christmas back in 2021. The peculiar incident was brought to the attention of The Internet by user OctopusCaveman, whose son owned an ant farm.
“My son put some Trix in his ant farm. Instead of eating them, the ants dug up all of the dead ants in the farm and piled them on top of the Trix,” he Tweeted. “Not sure what that means but I’m not eating Trix anymore.”
You’d think that ants would simply eat the sugary offering, so it was understandably baffling to learn that they were instead digging up their dead and heaping them on top of Trix (silly ants, Trix are for kids). So why were they using the cereal as a sugary graveyard?
Well, there are several theories surrounding the peculiar funerary practices of ants that have seen them seemingly build petal graveyards around dead bees and carry corpses to death piles. Necrophoresis is a sanitation behavior seen in social insects like ants, bees, wasps, and termites, all of which are known to carry away the dead bodies of members of their colony from the nest or hive.
Eusocial insects living in complex colonies use a variety of pheromones to communicate messages. This can be for a walking trail, to alert other ants of danger, or even just to let them know they’ve died and everyone else should probably watch out for dying, too.
It figures, then, that they’d be sensitive to the chemical signals of other animals, plant material, and sugary cereals. Ants have been observed putting fragrant material around dead insects – either as a means to protect a meal or to conceal their location – so it could well be that the pungent cereal represented a good opportunity to cover up their stinky dead.
Alternatively, it could be that the cereal itself was giving off the stench of death in the form of oleic acid. Squashed and dead ants emit oleic acid, and as an adaptation that lessens the spread of pathogens, necrophoresis sees the ants gather their smelly dead and carry them away to a dedicated tomb. Some colonies even have specialized undertaker ants for the job.
So, who knows, might be worth requesting a few Trix in your casket if you want some company beyond the grave.