A-Z Modern Bestiary: The Ancillary Lives of Ants

June 18, 2014 | Posted in: Modern Bestiary

A is for Ants

Kingdom: Animalia 
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae

Territory: Global
Appetite: Voracious

 is for the Ants

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“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” Lewis Thomas


Any human who turns their attention to the study of ants will quickly notice the commonalities between our species. More than any other social organism, ants have mastered complex organization in food production and foraging, social structure, building and infrastructure, and specialization of behavior. Yet, as myrmecologist Mark Moffet points out, “Whenever we notice parallels between ant colonies and our own societies, we should remember that the ant societies came first. Ants formed coordinated labor forces of expert homemakers and superb soldiers millions of years before we came on the scene.” From this perspective, it’s more true to say that humans are embarrassingly so much like ants.

Yet, hand-in-hand with the eerie familiarity we experience when comparing ants to humans, there’s also a disquieting and unbridgeable alienness to the social imperative of an ant’s life. An ant only makes sense as a plural, as ants. There isn’t a single ant species known in which an ant lives solitarily. Ants are always a society, and the individual ant is so strikingly, unwaveringly devoted to the collective as to seem enslaved, robotic, or mindless to our human understanding. So organized and obedient are the members of an ant colony that until the mid 20th century biologists were convinced that there had to be some mastermind controlling the behavior and assigning duties to the mass of individuals, though no leader was detectable.

Not even the Queen of the colony lives up to her ruling title. While she is indeed the only individual ant within a colony that is of vital and irreplaceable importance (and thus is constantly protected deep within the bowels of the nest), she doesn’t give any commands. Rather, her sole duty is to lay, day after day, for up to twenty years in some species, her fertilized eggs. Since all other ants born in the colony are infertile, the queen is the sole provider of new colony members, and without her, a colony has no future.

An illustration of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant from a German edition of Aesop's Fables, 1590.

An illustration of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant from a German edition of Aesop’s Fables, 1590.

With no commander ants giving orders, how do these colonies possibly run with the efficiency and productivity that ants are rightly famed for? The answer was illuminated in tandem with scientists’ understanding of superorganisms, meaning individuals that come together through their separate actions to create a cohesive whole.

“[T]en thousand ants–each limited to a meager vocabulary of pheromones and minimal cognitive skills–collectively engage in nuanced and improvisational problem-solving. A harvester ant colony in the field will not only ascertain the shortest route to a food source, it will also prioritize food sources, based on their distance and ease of access… We see emergent behavior in systems like ant colonies when the individual agents in the system pay attention to their immediate neighbors rather than wait for orders from above. They think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behavior…” Steven Johnson, Emergence

Ants communicate and glean information about their environment using touch, sound, and especially their ultra-sensitive antennae to detect pheromones. It’s these pheromones that allow ants to so quickly lead one another to food, as they leave a trail of chemical signals as obvious to them as neon signs are to us. We can think of an ant colony as a sort of chemical democracy, each individual ant voting by leaving its trail of scent. The more ants that follow the same path the stronger the scent becomes garnering the attention of more ants. This majority rule works for everything from locating food to fixing a damaged foraging trail to picking a new nesting site.                                 ,-,-,ö 

The use of pheromones are indeed the basis of a colony’s very existence, as each colony possesses its own distinct chemical signature, created by its queen and spread to each member of the nest. It’s this scent alone that identifies friend from foe, no secret handshake or flag required.

“Human beings think in sound and vision. Ants, forced to be pheromonal, think only in taste and smell. No human can understand the chemical sensations that crowd the brain of a worker ant. We have no understanding of the entities she conceives, or the tones, the accounts, and the blends that course through her mind. While the Trailhead Colony may have been silent to unaided human perception, it was thunderous with pheromonal chatter among the ants.”
E.O. Wilson, Anthill: A Novel

Scientists thus far have discovered nearly ten thousand ant species, each with its own particular social, physical, and behavioral adaptations. The majority of these ant species have evolved to have one single queen for each colony, who’s responsible for not only providing new colony members, but also laying special eggs that grow into future virgin queens, and their temporary male consorts, who will leave the nest to begin new colonies of their own.

All worker ants are females. Indeed, all the ants you ever see that look like ants are females. The males in an ant colony look like wasps, born with wings just like their female paramours, the virgin queens. In many species of ant, at the right moment, when the weather and humidity is deemed perfect, the males and virgin queens are bustled out of the nest and take flight. This is the single moment for which the male ants are born.

“The only thing he had ever done was accept meals regurgitated to him like a nestling bird by his sisters, and wait, and wait some more, and finally take the one short flight from his home followed by five minutes of copulation… In short, the male was no more than a guided missile loaded with sperm. His life’s work would be a single ejaculation. Up to the climatic moment, he had been a parasite in his mother’s colony, a layabout fed and groomed by his sisters. He performed no public service. After his world-defining five minutes, he was left with only one instruction that would be enforced if necessary by his sisters. Don’t come back here. Just die.
E.O. Wilson

The Marriage Flight, from Nature's Craftsmen: Popular Studies of Ants and Other Insects, Henry Christopher McCook, 1907

The Marriage Flight, from Nature’s Craftsmen: Popular Studies of Ants and Other Insects, Henry Christopher McCook, 1907.

The virgin queen, having received mid-flight the sperm that will fertilize all her eggs for the entirety of her life, now lands, breaks off her wings, and undertakes a herculean effort: to establish a new colony. The potential queen hurries to dig a small tunnel and chamber, because for now, and for the only time in any ant’s life, she is entirely alone; a single ant upon whom the future of a potential colony is resting. No help, no protection, and the odds are stacked against her. She quickly lays a small clutch of eggs, licking them constantly to prevent the growth of bacteria. If luck is on her side, these eggs will hatch to be the first daughters of her colony, smaller in size than future generations, as the queen has to feed them from her own limited fat reserves. One in ten thousand queens succeed in forming a fully functioning colony.              ö,-,-,    

Not all ants build their nests underground. The weaver ants live high in the canopies, creating nests by weaving together leaves to form protective shelters. Another genus of ants, Temnothorax, have some of the tiniest colonies, averaging twenty members, small enough to build their nests in hollowed out acorn and walnut shells.

In the Peruvian jungle, the ant species Camponotus femoratus and the smaller species Crematogaster levier work together (in one of few examples of collaboration between different ant species) to build what biologist term ant gardens: quarter-meter-wide nests huddled in branches high in the tropical treetops, built by masticating plant material and soil into a carton like substance, which is then embedded with a variety of seeds. These seeds grow and turn the nest into a verdant garden, the two symbiotic colonies now safely hidden beneath the flowers and leaves.

Driver ants, native to Africa, avoid the need for extensive nest-building by staying on the move, in massive and voracious roving colonies with numbers ranging from hundreds of thousands to over 20 million. They stay in a local area as long as the provisions can sustain them and then they rampage on, rushing together like a living river.

“[D]river ants are possessed, collectively, of the size and influence of a Biblical plague. They pass through forest and valley in columns a hundred meters across and many miles long, eating their way across Africa. Animal and vegetable they take, mineral they leave behind. This is what we learned in Kilanga: move out of the way and praise God for the housecleaning. In a few days the dark brigade will have passed on through–those ants can’t stop moving. You return to find your houses combed spotless of crumbs, your bedding free of lice, your woodlots cleansed of night soil, your hen coops rid of chicken mites. If by chance a baby was left behind in a crib, or a leopard in a cage, it would be a skeleton without marrow, clean as a whistle. But for those prepared to move aside for a larger passage, it works. Loss and salvation.” Barbara Kingsolver, Poisonwood Bible

In human societies we build tools to increase our productivity and chance of survival, but ants have mastered a different strategy. Instead of building tools using their environment, ants have built biological ones by morphing their own physical bodies to become the tool. Whether weapon, shield, saw or shovel, brush or broom, food storage, or transportation is needed, an ant somewhere can do that. Many species of ants have given rise to polymorphic societies, meaning that ants in the same colony are born physically different from one another, allowing them to specialize in particular jobs. Their biological form has evolved to define their destiny, whether soldier, major worker or minor worker (in one species of marauder ant a major worker is 10 times larger than a minor), replete (an ant whose only task is to store food in the form of concentrated nectar within its own body), nursery attendant, or attendant to the queen herself.

The Control of Carpenter Ants in Telephone Poles, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, 1937.

The Control of Carpenter Ants in Telephone Poles, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, 1937.

For brevity’s sake, I won’t go into detail on the multitude of ant species that keep herds of mealybugs, plant hoppers, or aphids, which provide the ants nectar in exchange for protection and movement to fresh leaf pastures. Nor can I exalt in long-winded musings on the underground agricultural wonders of the fungus-farming ants, who manage to keep their specially grown fungus free of all other fungi and microbes, as well as create complex ventilation systems to ensure clean air. The wonders these minuscule insects have created could fill volumes and volumes of books no one but myrmecologists would read…

But I feel called upon to offer a few sentences that exemplify the fastidious nature of ants, who despite often living underground in numbers reaching into the millions, are able to maintain a level of personal and environmental cleanliness that makes the average human, and our homes, seem deplorably dirty.

“From their earliest evolution, ants have needed to control the microbes that find sanctuary on their bodies and in the stagnant, moist depths where most species nest. Group living in such places is a public-health challenge, requiring the rapid removal of the dead, among other essential tasks. The metapleural glands on the thoraxes of ants have been one of their primary weapons in germ warfare. Like humans scrubbing down with soap, workers use their legs to transfer antibiotics from the metapleural glands to other parts of their anatomy, spending as much time primping and grooming as the average supermodel.” Mark W. Moffet, Adventures Among Ants

Ant societies run the full gamut of diversity that we see in the human world, from tiny hunter-gathers to supercolonies that build metropolises to house their millions of inhabitants. In California, a single supercolony (meaning many nests of ants but all acting as one giant colony) of nonnative Argentine ants now stretches from the Mexican border all the way up the coast past San Francisco, and has ant citizens in the billions. And just as with human civilizations, the more complex the ant society the more specialization, organization, and warfare one observes.

“Mature ant societies exhibit many of the same interrelated trends observed in both increasingly complex and increasingly populous human societies: a fast tempo of life and correspondingly higher information flow; more complex and nuanced communications; a great regulation and control of the environment; declining individual self-reliance and more specialization; a growing tendency for populations to subdivide into teams and form assembly lines and other labor crews; greater surpluses of energy, food, and labor; amplified risk-taking and the emergence of large-scale warfare; and the inception of social mechanisms unknown and unnecessary in small communities, such as elaborate infrastructure, efficient mass transit, and even features of a market economy, such as the collection and distribution of goods for consumers based on popularity and need.” Moffet

While ants display high levels of social organization, cleanliness, and harmony within their colony, they should not be mistaken as peaceful. Indeed, they save their savagery for the hunt and the field of battle. And for ants, war is waged against all enemies without mercy or consideration for their own individual lives. Some ant species make war as a daily practice, both to maintain territory and in some cases to acquire the young brood of other ant colonies to eat or even raise as, what myrmecologists dub, slaves.

Slave-Making Ant, from Nature's Craftsmen: Popular Studies of Ants and Other Insects, Henry Christopher McCook, 1907.

Slave-Making Ant, from Nature’s Craftsmen: Popular Studies of Ants and Other Insects, Henry Christopher McCook, 1907.

For both defense and aggression, ant species have developed a variety of horribly effective weapons. An individual ant is already built like a superhero, often able to support 100 times its own weight, and many species possess powerful jaws and deadly stingers. A few have even adapted to shoot formic acid from their mouths, while another species, Camponotus cylindricus, can start a muscular convulsion that causes her body to rupture, spewing out a toxic glue that kills both her and her enemy. It’s been fittingly dubbed the “kamikaze ant.”

Ants are capable murderers and they’ll defend their colony at all costs. An exemplary description of the unfailing selflessness and violence of ants comes from Henry Christopher McCook’s book Ant Communities and How They are Governed: A Study in Natural Civics, published in 1909:

“[H]ere comes to the edge of the [nest’s] mound a large black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), a ferocious and formidable insect… Forth from a gate leaps a sentinel, and launches its quivering body straight against the sable giant. One snap of the Camponotid’s jaws, and the assailant’s brown head is severed, and its beautiful life extinct. Another sentinel follows, and another, only to meet the same fate. But others crowd to the combat, eagerly facing and meeting wounds and death. Overwhelmed by numbers, the black warrior is at last conquered and dragged into the formicary, where its dismembered body is sucked dry and its shelly parts dumped upon the refuse-heap, or mayhap built into the growing walls, along with the vegetable debris of various sorts. This courageous and unselfish disregard of person and absolute devotion to the communal safety at the cost of life or limbs is characteristic of ant citizens; not of a few, but of all; not rarely and occasionally, but always; not under compulsion, but freely and without reward of any sort. Not even the high stimulus of applause of comrades and of honors of their fellows urge and sustain them.”

It isn’t just in battle that ants lack individuality. No ant in a colony is of empathic concern to any other member. The old and infirm take on the most dangerous positions outside the nest, as though biologically driven to exterminate themselves before they become of no use to the collective. This has led to the old joke (among those who study ants anyways) that humans send our young men to war while ants send their old ladies.

Even the queen is only accorded value due to her irreplaceable role as progeny-provider. But when she dies, the mother of them all, her body is dragged away to the refuse chamber like any other rubbish. No ceremonial farewell, no funeral rites attend her corpse’s removal. Just as with the ants that fall out on the battlefield surrounding the nest, no eulogies are offered. The life of an ant is mostly brutal and short, filled with thankless work day in and out.

The Lives of Ants, from Writing and Drawing Made Easy, Amusing and Instructive, Wm. Chinnery, 1750.

The Letter A, from Writing and Drawing Made Easy, Amusing and Instructive, Wm. Chinnery, 1750.

“Every day has its list of casualties, very large at times. Every morning sees many who venture forth in quest of food supplies for dependents and home-workers, bounding with vigorous life and highly intent upon useful service, who never come back. When evening comes, at the gates of their loved city no watchful sentinels greet them. No eager nurses, or hungry antlings, or comrades weary with toiling on the works, shall lift up lips for sweet reflection, the garnering of the day’s adventure. Somewhere outside the city bounds, it may be near by, it may be afar, there has been a tragedy that no annals shall record and no ballads sing, but which robs the community of a useful life, and cuts down a happy worker in the midst of a wholesome career.” Henry Christopher McCook

The lives of ants surround us, though we rarely notice unless our pantries or picnics are being raided. The native territory of ants includes every land mass apart from Greenland, Iceland, Antarctica, and some remote islands. They are indeed global inhabitants, just as we humans are. How many traits we share with these distant insect relatives, and yet, simultaneously, how unfathomably alien is their world of chemicals and abject subservience to the collective colony. Ultimately, our human perspective is inherently limited, unable to grasp life seen through the antennae of an ant. But let’s muse, for what it’s worth, while the ants work busily away.

A is Ants, who if they were bigger, would rule us all…

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Never heard of a bestiary? Read my introductory post for the Modern Bestiary series.

The following books informed this post:
Anthill: A Novel, E.O. Wilson
Emergence, Steven Johnson
ö,-,-,                  Adventures Among Ants, Mark W. Moffet
The Superorganism, Bert Hölldobler & E.O. Wilson
Ant Communities and How They are Governed, Henry Christopher McCook


Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.