Can People Smell Ants?

The ability to smell ants, like the aversion to cilantro, may be genetic. It's also possible that some people are more sensitive to odors than others.

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People like me who hate the taste of cilantro get incredulous looks from people who love the stuff. According to the Cleveland Clinic, this aversion is due to a gene that causes hyper-sensitivity to cilantro’s aldehyde component. Only 4% to 14% of us have this gene.

Not only that, but only about 40% of people can smell asparagus after eating it, and I can do that too. So I guess that puts me squarely in the minority.

However, I can’t smell ants— but plenty of other people can, apparently. This wasn’t well-known until recently when it became the subject of debate on TikTok and Twitter. A Twitter poll indicated about 27% of respondents have this ability.

Some ants are known to be so pungent their names reflect it. (We’re looking at you, stink ants.) But can all people smell all types of ants? As it turns out, it depends who you ask.

Can People Smell Ants?

In a word, yes. House ants, which emit a distinctive smell when you crush them, are the most obvious example.

Chemicals called methyl ketones cause this odor. They’re also produced by the Penicillium mold that grows on rotting coconuts, giving blue cheese its pungent aroma. The sense of smell varies from person to person, so some people may not detect this odor as well as others. But there’s objective scientific evidence that it exists.

Other ants give off odors as well. Where there’s an odor, there will be noses capable of detecting it. Not everyone, perhaps, but certainly those with sensitive sniffers.

Why Can Some People Smell Ants?

The issue is controversial. Those who can smell ants are incredulous when they hear some people can’t, and vice versa.

The reason for the discrepancy is still a mystery. Some people attribute it to genetics, which may be valid in certain cases.  Species like carpenter ants spray formic acid, which smells like vinegar. The ability to detect that could well be genetic.

A more likely reason is simply some people never tried. Ants are much more sensitive to smell than humans, and they use smell to communicate. Humans, who aren’t particularly noted in the mammalian world for their sense of smell, may not get close enough to ants to detect their odors.

Do All Ants Have a Smell?

Yes. All ants emit pheromones and have sensitive glands on their bodies to detect them. That’s how they send alarm signals, establish trails, distinguish members of their colony from intruders and identify the queen. These pheromones may not be strong enough for humans to pick up on.

Some definitely are, though. Citronella ants, aka larger yellow ants, are another example; they got their name from the citrus odor they emit when threatened. Even ants that aren’t known for a specific odor release oleic acid when they die, which smells like olive oil.

What To Do If You Smell Ants

If you have an infestation of house ants and you smell their distinctive coconut odor, handle it like any infestation. They like sweet and oily foods, so baiting them with sugary water or peanut butter laced with boric acid is the best way to kill the colony.

If you don’t want to make your own bait, buy a commercial bait station like Terro. You can use a similar baiting strategy to get rid of carpenter ants if you detect their vinegary smell. When you smell rancid olive oil, look for a bunch of dead ants in a dark corner or under a carpet and vacuum them up.

If you notice any other smells you think might be ant-related, congratulate yourself for being among the minority of humans with noses that sensitive. Then light a scented candle away from children, pets and drafts. And, of course, don’t leave the candle unattended.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been building and designing homes, and writing about the process, for over four decades. He developed his construction and landscaping skills in the 1980s while helping build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up. He's worked as a flooring installer, landscape builder and residential remodeler. Since turning his focus to writing, he has published or consulted on more than 10,000 articles and served as online building consultant for ProReferral.com as well as an expert reviewer for Hunker.com. Though his specialties are carpentry, cabinetry and furniture refinishing, Chris is known by his Family Handyman editors as a DIY writer with a seemingly endless well of hands-on experience.