Ants Are Cool but Teach Us Nothing
Imagine yourself a tourist in an East African park, binoculars raised to watch lions, elephants, buffalo, antelopes -- the iconic large mammals of the savanna. Suddenly one of the continent's greatest and least understood wildlife spectacles springs from the ground in front of you: millions of driver ants emerging from their subterranean nest. At first a teeming mob, the ants soon form a column, so densely packed that they walk over one another, and the whole comes to resemble a twisting, writhing bundle of ropes.
No living creature dares to touch them. Every one of the foragers is ready to bite and sting, and posted along the column are soldiers on raised legs with pincer-shaped mandibles poised upward. The driver ants are well organized, yet they have no leaders. The vanguard consists of whichever of the blind workers happen to reach the front at the moment. These dash forward briefly before yielding to others that press from behind.
At 20 meters or so out from the nest, the column fans out into smaller and then still smaller columns of workers, hunting and seizing insects, spiders and other invertebrates to bring back to the nest as food. They also drag home any larger animals unable to get out of their way -- lizards, snakes, small mammals and, it is rumored, occasional unguarded babies. There is good reason for the driver ants' ferocity: a multitude of mouths must be fed, or the system will collapse. The entire colony, foragers and homebound workers combined, consists of as many as 20 million sterile females -- all daughters of the thumb-sized mother queen, the largest ant known in the world.
All of the 14,000 known species of ants form such superorganisms, although only a few are as large and complex as those of the driver ants.
For nearly seven decades, starting in boyhood, I've studied hundreds of kinds of ants around the world, and this qualifies me, I believe, to offer some advice on ways their lives can be applied to ours. I'll start with the question I'm most often asked: "What can I do about the ants in my kitchen?" My response comes from the heart: Watch your step, be careful of little lives. Ants especially like honey, tuna and cookie crumbs. So put down bits of those on the floor, and watch as the first scout finds the bait and reports back to her colony by laying an odor trail. Then, as a little column follows her out to the food, you will see social behavior so strange it might be on another planet. Think of kitchen ants not as pests or bugs, but as your personal guest superorganism.
Another question I hear a lot is, "What can we learn of moral value from the ants?" Here again I will answer definitively: nothing. Nothing at all can be learned from ants that our species should even consider imitating. For one thing, all working ants are female. Males are bred and appear in the nest only once a year, and then only briefly. They are pitiful creatures with wings, huge eyes, small brains and genitalia that make up a large portion of their rear body segment. They have only one function in life: to inseminate the virgin queens during the nuptial season. They are built to be robot flying sexual missiles. Upon mating or doing their best to mate, they are programmed to die within hours, usually as victims of predators.
Many kinds of ants eat their dead -- and their injured, too. You may have seen ant workers retrieve nestmates that you have mangled or killed underfoot (accidentally, I hope), thinking it battlefield heroism. The purpose, alas, is more sinister.
As ants grow older, they spend more time in the outermost chambers and tunnels of the nest, and are more prone to undertake dangerous foraging trips. They also are the first to attack enemy ants and other intruders. Here indeed is a major difference between people and ants: While we send our young men to war, ants send their old ladies.
The most complex societies of all ant species, and arguably of all animals everywhere, are the leafcutters of the American tropics. In lowland forests and grasslands from Mexico to South America, you find conspicuous long files of reddish ants. Many carry freshly cut pieces of leaves, flowers and twigs. The ants don't eat this vegetation. They carry it deep into their nests, where they convert it into complex, spongelike structures. On this substrate they grow a fungus, which they do eat. The entire process employs a sequence of specialists: The leafcutters in the field are medium in size. As they head home with their burdens, tiny sister ant workers ride on their backs to protect them from parasitic phorid flies. Inside the nest, workers somewhat smaller than the gatherers scissor the leaf fragments into pieces. Still smaller ants chew the fragments into lumps and add their own fecal material as fertilizer. Even smaller workers use the gooey lumps thus created to construct the gardens. And workers as small as the fly guards plant and tend the fungus.
The largest caste of leafcutter ants have razor-sharp mandibles and the adductor muscles to close them with enough force to slice mammalian skin. These soldiers defend the nest against the most dangerous predators, including anteaters.
Species that have been able to evolve superorganismic colonies -- almost purely on the basis of instinct -- have as a whole been enormously successful. The 20,000 or so known species of social insects make up only 2 percent of the million known species of insects but three-fourths of the insect biomass.
With complexity, however, comes vulnerability, and that brings me to one of the other superorganism superstars, the domestic honeybee. When disease strikes solitary animals that we have embraced in symbiosis, such as chickens, pigs and dogs, veterinarians can usually diagnose and fix the problem. Honeybees, on the other hand, have by far the most complex lives of all our domestic partners. There are a great many more twists and turns in their adaptation to their environment that, upon failing, can damage some part of the colony life cycle. The intractability thus far of the honeybee colony collapse disorder of Europe and North America, which threatens so much of crop pollination, may represent an intrinsic weakness of superorganisms.
You may occasionally hear human societies described as superorganisms. This is a bit of a stretch. It is true that we form societies dependent on cooperation, labor specialization and frequent acts of altruism. But where social insects are ruled almost entirely by instinct, we base labor division on transmission of culture. Also, unlike social insects, we are too selfish to behave like cells in an organism. Human beings seek their own destiny. They will always revolt against slavery, and refuse to be treated like worker ants.
(Edward O. Wilson is a biologist and naturalist and the author of more than 20 books. This is an excerpt from "The Meaning of Human Existence," which will be published Sept. 15 by Liveright.)
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