Scientists of the world, we have a request: please investigate the claim that some people can detect the smell of ants while others can’t. It’s painfully urgent.
Everyone now and again, a viral post will go around in which some people claim they can smell ants. In one TikTok video sharing the apparent fact, the comments became engulfed in heated debate:
“My ex would say that they smelled spicy,” one person replied.
“Dead ants smell like chemicals kinda like bug poison,” said another.
“THIS IS A PRANK THEY DON’T SMELL,” one TikToker protested.
Curious about this phenomenon, we carried out a wildly unscientific poll on the platform formerly known as Twitter involving over 700 respondents at the time of publishing this story. The results suggest that around 20 percent of respondents claim they can detect the odor of an ant. The remaining 80 percent said they couldn’t smell ants – and were deeply confused.
When asked what the smell was, there was a range of responses:
“They’re like an earthy, stink bug odor,” one person commented.
“Weird. chemically smell. like something used in a bottle that says WARNING,” reads another comment.
“They smell a bit like rust, a sour rusty odor, is the best way I can describe it,” one respondent replied.
Fortunately, some entomologists have looked into the phenomenon of ant sniffing. In 2015, a study investigated the smell of the odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile), one of the most widespread ant species in North America. Clint Penick, an ant expert at North Carolina State University, asked hundreds of people to smell a box of T. sessile and fill out a survey on what they thought the ants smelled like.
The most common answer was reportedly blue cheese. Other commonly reported descriptions cited by the study were a chemical-like cleaning spray and rotting coconuts.
Digging deeper into this curious observation, Penick and his collaborator Adrian Smith managed to identify the chemicals that were responsible: methyl ketones. It turns out, odorous house ants and blue cheese both have this chemical. When coconuts go rotten, they also grow a blue mold that produces methyl ketones.
It’s evident that other species of ants also produce equally pungent-smelling scents too. When threatened, carpenter ants will spray formic acid, a caustic chemical with antimicrobial properties that smells like vinegar. Likewise, citronella ants are named after the sour citrus smell they produce to ward off predators.
But what about the claim that some people can detect the scents but others can’t? Well, that’s where things get hazier.
Some put it down to genetics, arguing that some people lack a certain gene for detecting the smell of formic acid, a bit like the gene that makes cilantro taste of soap to some poor souls. However, there’s not much evidence to back up that claim. Another explanation might be the species of ant that live in your region. As mentioned, some ants are stinkier than others.
Perhaps, as others have suggested, people who believe they can’t smell ants just haven’t tried hard enough.
This important investigation shall continue…