What the humble (but mighty) ant can teach us humans
Not just about weight-lifting, but everything from health to traffic jams
- Ants can teach humans in areas as diverse as health care, defence, and transport
- Size for size, they are much stronger than us and can lift 5,000 times its weight
- The tiny insects make up a quarter of all the animals on earth, at ten quadrillion
Humans may think we rule the world — but the tiny ant can tell us how to do it better.
Ants make up around a quarter of the Earth’s animal numbers, with about ten quadrillion of them — that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000 (more than a million ants to every human).
And, size for size, they’re mind-bogglingly much stronger than us, as a stunning picture, first seen in last week’s Mail, of a weaver ant in Indonesia lifting a bee 40 times its own weight, confirmed.
Here, we reveal what ants could teach us in areas as diverse as health care, defence, transport and creating empires . . .
No amount of training or performance-enhancing drugs will enable humans to emulate the physical feats of ants.
One record belongs to the common American field ant, which can bear up to 5,000 times its own weight (the equivalent of a 10 st person carrying more than 300 tons). Thanks to its sticky feet, the Asian weaver ant can carry more than 100 times its own bodyweight — while hanging upside down from a sheet of glass.
Ants are so strong because their bodies are so light. Inside their exoskeletons, their muscles don’t have to provide much support holding up the body, so they can use their strength to lift other objects.
Human bodies are vastly heavier, so we have to expend a lot of our own muscle power just holding ourselves up.
No amount of training or performance-enhancing drugs will enable humans to emulate the physical feats of ants
The largest ant colony found is more than 3,750 miles wide, created by Argentinian ants on the Mediterranean coast. They’re thought to have gone there in cargo ships.
This super-colony is estimated to comprise more than a billion ants in nests that border each other like nation states. The EU contains half as many people, and they clearly can’t co-operate so effectively.
By generally working in concert, ant brains combine to create one huge super-brain, which, arguably, makes the insects collectively the most intelligent in the animal kingdom.
An ant’s brain contains only 250,000 cells, compared with a honey bee’s 960,000 and up to 100 billion in the human brain.
But collectively, they create a highly developed social system where millions of individuals operate in perfect synchronicity, with queens to lay eggs, drones to fertilise the queens and sterile wingless females as workers and soldiers.
Ants hold the record for sexual restraint and abundant fertility. Queens have one sexual encounter, storing all the sperm they’ll ever need.
Then, in a few days, a queen can lay up to 300,000 eggs.
Their colonies are the world’s largest democracies.
One example is the way some colonies choose their new homes.
Arizona State University studied a colony of Temnothorax rugatulus red ants, and noted that when they had to move, worker ‘scouts’ examined potential new homes.
If they liked them, they returned to say ‘Follow me’, using pheromones — body chemicals that send messages to other ants.
And worker ants look after each other. If you see ants ‘kissing’, they are feeding each other — a process called trophallaxis
Queens have one sexual encounter, storing all the sperm they’ll ever need. Then, in a few days, a queen can lay up to 300,000 eggs
Then, a second ant would join the original and the process would be repeated, until a sufficient number approved the home.
But it’s not all about equal opportunities. In a practice called dulosis, many species raid neighbouring colonies to steal eggs or larvae, then force the matured captives to work. Some ant species appear incapable of feeding themselves without slave labour.
The insect NHS
Australian biologists have found that the insects produce antibiotics to control diseases in colonies — and these may benefit us. Ant-made antibiotics are effective against the fungus Candida albicans, which causes thrush.
And Finnish investigators found that when Formica fusca ants contract a potentially lethal fungal disease, they eat foods high in hydrogen peroxide, such as aphids or decaying dead ants.
South American wood ants, meanwhile, build healthy cities. They construct nests using tree resin with the antimicrobial power to kill bacteria and fungi.
South American wood ants, meanwhile, build healthy cities. They construct nests using tree resin with the antimicrobial power to kill bacteria and fungi
Some ants have perfected self-quarantine. The carpenter ant will exile itself from the colony within four days of contracting parasitic fungal infections.
Ants have ambulance services, too. German scientists discovered that African Matabele ants, which hunt termites, rescue fighters that lose antennae or legs in battle.
If one is bitten by a termite, it produces two ‘emergency’ pheromones — present in jaw glands — to ‘call’ other ants for help.
There us no fear of mutiny in the ant society. The insects are unfailingly loyal, fighting as a single ‘super-organism’.
The injured ant is taken back to the nest and, says the study in the journal Science Advances, most live to fight again.
And worker ants look after each other. If you see ants ‘kissing’, they are feeding each other — a process called trophallaxis.
Ants have two stomachs: one to hold food for themselves, and one for others. It enables some ants to look after the nest, while others forage.
Ants also look after themselves. Fire ant workers nap for a minute at a time, 250 times a day.
Ants have two stomachs: one to hold food for themselves, and one for others. It enables some ants to look after the nest, while others forage
There are no motorway snarl-ups or road rage on ant trails, even when thousands are on the move.
When German researchers doubled the density of ants on a trail (by increasing the food supply at the end of it), the ants moved faster by 50 per cent.
And ants also have their own ‘ant-nav’, using the sun and their memory to return to their nests.
Biologists in Edinburgh found that they can even do this walking backwards carrying loads.
The insects have been farming for far longer than us. American scientists discovered fossils that show ants ‘grew’ fungi for food on the plant matter they gathered, in underground complexes
Giant colonies live in harmony with their surroundings. Ants can move 50 tons of earth a year in one square mile. In doing so, they aerate soil, improve garden fertility and control pests, making them more important than earthworms in horticultural terms.
The insects have been farming for far longer than us. American scientists discovered fossils that show ants ‘grew’ fungi for food on the plant matter they gathered, in underground complexes.
There are more than 200 known ‘agricultural’ ant species, including those that ‘farm’ aphids, protecting them and ‘milking’ the aphids for their honeydew.
These ants were pictured hauling a huge bee back to its nest and made the unbelievable feat look easy
Ants have developed an array of ingenious weapons, too.
The exploding Camponotus ants of Borneo take out enemies with suicide squads that use chemical warfare — bursting their bodies to emit a sticky yellow goo that envelops their foe.
And the bullet ant from the rainforests of South America has a venom 30 times more painful than a bee’s. Young tribesmen of the Satere-Mawe in Brazil endure the bites 20 times as an initiation.
Mark Moffett, an ecologist and author of Adventures Among Ants, says we can learn a trick or two from how ants wage war.
Photographer, Eko Adiyanto, captured these remarkable images and watched in amazement as the ant eventually drafted in some help from friends
For example, there’s no need for orders in an ant army — they operate with precise organisation, despite no central command. ‘Humans are accustomed to being told what to do,’ says Moffett.
There’s no fear of mutiny, either. Ants are unfailingly loyal, fighting as a single ‘super-organism’.
Even the most patriotic humans can’t compare, Moffett adds.