You stand looking down at your shoes as a line of ants marches around them. Now you don’t often give these creatures a second thought unless you have a magnifying glass. But this time it is your burning curiosity that keeps you there. Today you stand in an Ant Zoo.
“Here we have the bullet ant.” Announces the zookeeper. “Named for its sting, which is the most painful of all insects and is used in some Brazilian cultures in a coming-of-age ceremony for young males. The sting they endure is described as being like ‘fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.’ Lovely.” Recoiling from this line of monsters before you, you wonder how it came to be that you share the same world as them.
“Welcome to the world of ants.”
The tour continues to find some friendlier cultures of this ant’s family. First region is the ants’ farming community and first amongst these species is the Texas leafcutter ant, a fungus cultivating ant. This remarkable species grows its own strain of fungus as a crop. It gathers new leaf material to feed the mushroom and later harvests it. Next up are the Melissotarsus ants of continental Africa who are ranchers of aphids, known to keep and breed them as livestock.
Moving further into the farmlands of the zoo you are introduced to a particular species of dairying ants that ‘milk’ aphids and caterpillars. These ants move their herd from pasture to pasture in search of the best grazing material and they suckle on the honeydew their herd secretes though its skin.
Heading into the zoo’s plains you come across the species Polyergus rufescens. These warlike ants carry out raids on other colonies to capture their pupae and enslave them in their own colony once they hatch. These ants are so reliant on their captives that without them they would starve.
Next you enter the valley of the Great Builders. Weaver ants are named for their ability to craft nests out of leaves and plant material. It takes a co-ordinated effort of hundreds of them to fold a single leaf and many more to meanwhile glue it down. Many ants, and we’ll not go into their names as they are so numerous, build underground lairs in the soil that can be as deep as eight metres below the surface, or create monuments up to a metre and a half tall. These fortresses have separate chambers contained within, a nursery for the Queen to lay her eggs, a communal dormitory for the worker ant sisters and a larder to store food. Special amongst the builders are the acrobatic fire ants. These nomadic peoples like to build more naturally. They build tents, bridges and even rafts from their own bodies. The remarkable part of their structures is how well they work. The rafts for example, are built to take advantage of the surface tension of the water, so that even the brave ants on the bottom of the ship don’t drown.
“The ant families are amongst the most sophisticated builders, the most dedicated farmers and the most disciplined soldiers of the Kingdom Animalia. The ant nest is an almost perfectly ventilated, traffic controlled and planned complex. Nothing is too good for their fungus crops, which they feed only the best plant material available and house in an ideal setting within the nest. When it comes to war they have no need for generals. Without any command structure they co-ordinate themselves into one living, bleeding, biting creature.” Announces the zookeeper, fairly content with the wonder of it all.
You once more watch down over the antique civilisations that crawl below your feet and wonder what it would be like to live in their world. Then you shrink to a dot.
The grass below your feet engorges you as the world around you expands. And there you stand just nine tenths of an inch tall. It seems no one had noticed your inexplicable departure from the tour group and perplexed as you are, you can think of no reason why all of a sudden you might shrink. Now a person with a lesser mind than your own might have asked ‘how’ and ‘why’ this had happened. However, you found yourself only occupied with opportunities ‘that’ this presents. So off you set on, what ought to be, your greatest adventure yet.
After what was quite a stroll you come across the ants, your new peers. This bustling line of bodies stretches as far as you can see in the forest of grasses. You try to interject, to get the attention of one of these fellows, but they seem so absolutely fixated on getting on with their business of chasing the ant in front of them that they won’t stop. You lean back on a blade of grass to watch this migration and from high above you hear the voice of the zookeeper, “…ants communicate largely through odours. These leafcutter ants leave a pheromone trail on the ground as they walk. If this trail becomes reinforced by multiple ants walking the same way the pheromones become so strong that it is almost irresistible for crowds of other ants to follow. Therefore they form these highways.” A single black ant approaches you having strayed from the trail. She is of the smallest castes, a minor worker ant, and stands only to your hip. She probes you with clumsy antennae and on sensing that you don’t appear to be a leaf that needs to be cut, is sucked back to the highway. “Sometimes these highways can become looping ring roads.” The zookeepers voice rings. “If such an event occurs the colony of ants will run in circles until they die of exhaustion.”
The line of ants pass and you decide to follow their path. Unlike them this is your own decision, no scent compels you to follow, only curiosity. Further along the road you come across two lone ants scrabbling over a twig. This tug of war seems to be an important one as although the pair of them look tired, they each pull with as much force as they can muster. “These ants as you can see,” rang that familiar voice, “are almost useless in small numbers. If left undisturbed this pair will go about their fruitless task for weeks on end. If you could ask them, what you would find is that neither of the ants has a grand scheme of what this stick will be used for. Neither is their fight sibling rivalry. Both of them ‘think’ that the stick looks like something that ought to be pulled, but they disagree in which direction.”
You move on down the trail and come to a clearing in the middle of which is built a wattle-and-daub skyscraper. Around this, the ants’ nest, the residents are furtively building up the fortifications. This construction job is not the most efficient you have ever seen, though. In general, these strong builders are moving off to fetch grains of soil and adding them to the growing pile around the entrance, however there some ants with a seemingly different blueprint in mind. They can be seen blocking up the entrance, taking apart the new fortifications or merely moving irrelevant grains of dirt all over the place. You look around, expecting the ‘foreman’ to come out and discipline these miscreants, but no one comes. The Queen of the colony is nowhere to be seen, right now she is inside eating and laying eggs and the ‘soldier’ ants, which are the larger sisters to the workers, are building as haphazardly as the rest of their kin. But to their credit they ARE lifting slightly larger grains.
“The ant colony has no central authority or architect.” Boomed the familiar voice from above. “Each ant helps to build the nest, but individually, no ant has any idea how to build a nest. It seems they move grains around purely on whimsy and whiff. But what emerges when you combine millions of these instincts together is the nest structure.” You watch over the nest until most of them moves inside and wonder why they would be building up fortifications like this in the first place. Then the first fat bombs of rain fall. You black out.
You have hazy dreams of a torrent surging around you and carrying you off, struggling for breath and eventually being freed of the water and carried on the hard back of a black steed. You wake up coughing. Your guardian is nowhere to be seen, but around you in this sweet smelling pen are hundreds of green flies. One of these fat green aphids waddles over towards you, feeling its way with two long antennae. As he makes his approach you notice that one of his wings has been ripped off. In fact, looking around you see that all of the aphids have had their wings mutilated in some manner. You reach down to pet this poor guy only to find him covered head to foot to foot to foot to foot to foot to foot in a sticky sap. He suddenly recoils at your touch. The rest of the green flies begin to scatter towards the edge of the pen as a red and black spotted demon descends from the sky towards you. At the back of the pen you see shelter, a small hole you can squeeze into. You run and clamber in. Outside the buffet has started. In a rather unladylike fashion this beetle devoirs the aphids one by one. Many of the green flies try their broken wings to take to the air, but none of them can make it off the ground. Grounded and penned in it is just too easy for the ladybird. Then through the crack you spot them. Countless dairying ants swarm into the arena and clumsily bite and claw at the intruder. Just a moment later and the ladybird lies in pieces on the pen floor whilst the ants, despite having attacked each other in the heat of things, have lost only two bodies. The victors crawl around the still scrambling aphids, trodding all over them. As these shepherd ants climb over their herd the aphids seem to calm.
“The chemicals that the ants secrete through their feet act as a sedative to the aphids.” Says the great voice. “It keeps them calm and makes them less likely to wonder off from their protectors.”
The ants began to suckle on their dopey herd. Licking the honeydew from their backs. You climb out of your den just in time. Just as suddenly as you shrank, you grow again leaving the world below.
“You see,” the zookeeper looks to you, “an ant is an unenlightened creature. It is categorically dumb. No ant knows how to build a nest, how to build a chamber or how to even build a wall. But the colony knows. You may ask then, when no individual knows even a little, how can the colony know a lot? Well I would ask you the same thing about the brain. No neuron knows how to read; no neuron knows a word or even a single letter. So how can YOU know these things? Well, when it comes to ants, it seems that the intelligence emerges in the space between the ants. Somewhere in the scent trails, the pheromones and the sum of the local interactions between ants is where the ‘thoughts’ live. Similarly in the brain it is the electrical signals between neurons that house your mind. Each part, each neuron, each ant doesn’t know it is having a thought or that it is part of larger being. It just fires, or it doesn’t; it just moves this grain, or that grain. But above these small parts emerges a superorganism that can have thoughts and intelligence that isn’t there on a smaller scale. This, my friend is swarm intelligence and it applies to you as much as ants. It can be applied to robotics and even to populations.”