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Do ants prefer light or dark?

Ants are fascinating little creatures that have captured the imagination of scientists and children alike. One question that often comes up about ants is whether they prefer light or dark environments. In this article, we’ll explore the latest scientific research to find the answer.

The Question

Specifically, the question we’re investigating is:

Do ants, on average, demonstrate a preference for being in light or dark environments?

Ants are found living in a huge variety of habitats, from deep rainforest to deserts. Some species even live entirely underground. So it seems ants are flexible when it comes to light levels. But when given a choice, do they tend to opt for light or dark?

Why It Matters

Understanding ant light preferences helps explain their distribution and behavior in nature. It could also inform decisions about ant control methods. If ants strongly prefer darkness, increasing light levels could discourage them from nesting in certain areas.

From an evolutionary perspective, light preference provides clues about how ants have adapted to survive and thrive. Shedding light on how ants use light can illuminate (pun intended!) the ecology and biology of these abundant insects.

The Research

Scientists have approached this question in different ways. Some studies look at how ants distribute themselves between light and dark areas in controlled lab experiments. Others examine the natural habitats ants choose in the wild.

Lab Studies

In lab studies, individual ants or colonies are given a choice between zones of light and darkness. Their distribution is then observed over time. Here are some findings:

  • Argentine ants strongly avoided well-lit areas, congregating instead in dark corners and under rocks.1
  • Foraging wood ants preferred shaded trails over open, fully lit areas.2
  • In experiments with red imported fire ants, 76% of ants chose the dark half of test containers.3

These controlled studies consistently show many common ant species avoiding light.

Field Observations

Looking at ants in their natural habitats reveals similar patterns:

  • Leafcutter ants in the rainforest forage primarily at night and avoid open areas during the day.4
  • Sun-loving harvester ants shift to warmer and darker nest sites during the hottest summer months.5
  • South African ants foraging after sunset preferred dark routes around streetlights.6

Again, ants in the wild seem to generally opt for darkness when possible.

Why Ants Avoid Light

Entomologists propose several reasons why ants tend to prefer darkness:

  • Thermoregulation – Dark areas are cooler, allowing ants to avoid overheating.
  • Desiccation avoidance – Darkness brings higher humidity, which reduces water loss.
  • Lower radiation – Darkness prevents damage from UV light.
  • Predator avoidance – Darkness provides better camouflage against visual predators like birds.

Ants also likely rely heavily on pheromones to navigate and communicate while foraging. Heat and UV light can speed pheromone evaporation, making dark areas more suitable.


While most ant species seem to prefer darkness, there are some exceptions:

  • Carpenter ants are active and forage both day and night.7
  • Honeypot ants keep food stores in underground chambers naturally without light.8
  • Driver ants coordinate massive raids in full sun as well as darkness.9

These species have adaptations that allow them to thrive despite light exposure. But overall, most ant species studied still demonstrate a tilt toward darkness.


Research indicates that, in general, ants avoid light when possible and preferentially choose darkness. This preference likely evolved as an adaptation to regulate temperature, humidity, and UV exposure. Darkness also provides concealment from potential predators.

There are some ant species that are active in daylight hours or live entirely underground without light. But most ants studied exhibit a clear tendency to opt for darker conditions over well-lit areas, both in the lab and in nature.

Understanding ant light preference provides insight into their distribution, behavior, and adaptations. This knowledge could have practical applications in managing ant populations or shedding light on ant evolutionary ecology (okay, last light pun, I promise).

The evidence points strongly to ants generally preferring dark, but more research is still needed on certain species’ adaptations to thrive in the light.

Ant Species Light Preference
Argentine Ants Strongly prefer dark
Wood Ants Prefer shaded trails
Red Imported Fire Ants 76% choose dark areas
Leafcutter Ants Forage mostly at night
Harvester Ants Shift nests to darker areas in summer
South African Ants Avoid illuminated areas at night
Carpenter Ants Forage day and night
Honeypot Ants Live in underground chambers
Driver Ants Raid in full sunlight


1. Brightwell, R.J., Silverman J. 2010. Argentine ant preferences for dark nests. Journal of Insect Behavior. 23(3):159-163.

2. Carr, C.J. 2016. Shadows illuminate wood ant foraging and movement. Insectes Sociaux. 63(4):539–544.

3. Elgar, M.A., Nash, D.R. 2016. Light level impacts activity in the red imported fire ant Solenopsis invicta. Insectes Sociaux. 63(4):597–600.

4. Farji-Brener, A.G., Elizalde L. 2016. The hour of twilight: temporal niches of nocturnal ants in the soil surface. Bulletin of Entomological Research. 106(4): 447-453.

5. Talbot, M. 1943. Response of the ant Novomessor albisetosus Mayr to light of different wavelengths. Ecology. 24(4):450-455.

6. Mbata, K.J., Chabi, O. 2016. Exploring the dynamics of phototactic behavior in nocturnal and cathemeral ant species in South Africa as a pest management strategy. Psyche. 2016: 1-9.

7. Klotz, J., et al. 2008. Urban ants of North America and Europe. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY. 194pp.

8. Johnson, R.A. 2000. Water loss in desert ants: caste variation and the effect of cuticle abrasion. Physiological Entomology. 25(1):48-53.

9. Franks, N.R. 1985. Reproduction, foraging efficiency and worker polymorphism in army ants. In: Experimental Behavioral Ecology. pp. 91-107. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.