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I spent the Labour Day weekend at the home of some friends at Crooked Lake. The weather was beautiful and so was their yard, and so we ate lunch outdoors, observing and being observed by cats, humming birds, bees, butterflies, hawks–and ants.

Of all of them, it was the ants who were most interested in our activities, for reasons which became obvious as I watched one after another cart away a prize crumb of bread or cheese, many times larger than itself. Ants are pretty amazing, I thought…but until I did a little research, I had no idea how amazing.

There are approximately 8,800 known species of ants, and possible two or three times that many that have never been identified. It’s estimated that there are a billion billion insects on Earth at any one moment, and approximately one in 100 is an ant; that means there is a standing population of 10 million billion ants in the world, weighing in at roughly 900 million kilograms–10 percent of the weight of all land animals put together.

More fascinating than their numbers is their social life. Ants form huge colonies (the size and exact composition depending on the species), in which every ant serves a specialized function and does so perfectly, all without any direction from above. 

Although ant colonies do have a “queen”, she’s no more the “leader” of the colony than–well, than Queen Elizabeth is the political leader of Canada. She’s just one more highly specialized ant, with the most important function of all: making new ants.

It’s almost a misnomer to speak of “individual” ants, because the true ant organism is the colony. Just as our bodies have organs designed for specific tasks, so the ant colony has “organs” made up of specific kinds of ants. Foragers are like arms, reaching out into the surrounding countryside to find food for the colony. Soldiers are like teeth and claws, protecting the colony from its enemies. And the queen is the organism’s reproductive organ.

The variations that ants have wrought on this theme range from the relatively simple to the enormously complex. In the latter category, consider the 40 known species of leaf-cutter ant.

Leaf-cutters are farmers, raising tasty fungus on pulped bits of leaf. They have a specialized caste for every required task in the process. Large workers with powerful jaws climb shrubs and trees and bring back bits of leaves. Smaller workers chop the fragments into smaller pieces, and successively smaller workers further reduce the fragments into pulp, which are added to a large, spongy mass of decaying vegetation on which they plant their edible fungus. Not only that, they weed out unsuitable bits of fungus that may also grow in the “garden,” cultivate the fungus they do want, and then distribute it to the other members of the colony. The big ants that forage for leaves are too large to care for the fungus, while the little ants that care for the fungus are too small to cut leaves. Only by working together can they succeed.

And succeed they have. Some species of leaf-cutter ants create colonies with more than a million workers, with chambers and galleries reaching six metres underground. In the tropics of the western hemisphere, they consume more vegetation than mammals, caterpillar or beetles.

Ants’ social organization is maintained by the ants’ ability to communicate to each other via pheromones, chemicals that can be sensed by other ants. Specific chemicals call ants out of the nest to scavenge when a rich new source of food is found; cause them to swarm to the defense of the nest (crushing the head of many species of ants releases a pheromone that will make soldier ants come swarming); help antsrecognize other ants from their nest, and so on.

Ants are not humans, and ant colonies are not really parallels of human societies. (Thank goodness; we’ve got enough of the attitude that “anyone not of my kind is the enemy” without carrying it to the absolute extremes that ants do, who will attempt to expel or destroy any foreign creature or object that enters their territory.) Yet ants do instinctively what we most praise in humans: devote their lives to the good of their fellows. It’s hard not to appreciate that.

And the success that ants have achieved without intelligence or leaders makes you wonder why our own societies have such struggles when we, supposedly, boast both.

Think about that, the next time ants appear at your picnic.

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