the world of ants

We’ve ‘got’ ants at our place at the moment – the other day we came home to a thick black column that stretched from a chink in the woodwork around the french doors, all the way across the dining room & into the pantry. Determined little beggars! I suppose we should count ourselves lucky, as most of the time they confine their activities to the garden & the area round my goldfish ponds. (Yes – ponds, plural. I like goldfish. & the ponds are proper little ecosystems too – even have dragonfly larvae gobbling up the invertebrates that the fish miss.)

Anyway, the daughter & I have long been fascinated by ants – watching what happens when you stir up a nest, or changing their pheromone-laced trails & noting what happens. (We are in good company there – Richard Feynmann wrote how he did much the same, as a university student.) So I know she’ll enjoy this article – a review of a book co-authored by one of the giants of sociobiology, E.O.Wilson. (Though perhaps not the book itself, as the reviewer – Tim Flannery – notes that it’s rather heavy on the jargon.) But the review is great 🙂

The book is called Superorganism, & Flannery begins his review by making clear just what that term means:

Superorganisms such as some ant, bee, and termite colonies represent a level of organization intermediate between single organisms and the ecosystem: you can think of them as comprised of individuals whose coordination and integration have reached such a sophisticated level that they function with some of the seamlessness of a human body. The superorganism whose "hand" reaches into your sugar bowl is probably around the size of a large octopus or a garden shrub, and it will have positioned itself so that its vital parts are hidden and sheltered from climatic extremes, while it still has easy access to food and water.

Now that description really tickled my fancy – & it gives a different perspective on those pesky little critters on our kitchen lino. And there are other parallels:

The individual ants, they say, function like cells in our body, an observation that’s given more piquancy when we realize that, like many of our cells, individual ants are extremely short-lived. Depending upon the species, between 1 and 10 percent of the entire worker population of a colony dies each day, and in some species nearly half of the ants that forage outside the nest die daily. The specialized ant castes—such as workers, soldiers, and queens—correspond, they say, to our organs; and the queen ant, which in some instances never moves, but which can lay twenty eggs every minute for all of her decade-long life, is the equivalent of our gonads.

But it’s still important to recognise that ants are also fundamentally different from us. I particularly liked this example:

A whimsical example concerns the work of ant morticians, which recognize ant corpses purely on the basis of the presence of a product of decomposition called oleic acid. When researchers daub live ants with the acid, they are promptly carried off to the ant cemetery by the undertakers, despite the fact that they are alive and kicking. Indeed, unless they clean themselves very thoroughly they are repeatedly dragged to the mortuary, despite showing every other sign of life.

Contrast that with the care of human medical staff & undertakers to ensure that the dead really are dead. In many mediaeval mortuaries, corpses were laid out for a day or so with bells attached to their stiffening limbs, so that if someone was only unconscious & subsequently woke up, their movements would jangle the bells & alert the attendants to come & rescue them.

But – no more snippets! Go over & read the full review; you’ll enjoy it.

6 thoughts on “the world of ants”

  • Wonderful article. Although you wonder if the article covers the need for the book for many, given how long it is and much it covers! I don’t want to post another spoiler, but I had to laugh at how they worked out they count steps.

  • About your last paragraph, I have read Bondeson’s book Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. While intentionally light, it was fun 🙂 It’s a history of fear of being buried alive and includes descriptions of the devices used to detect the not-so-dead, Germany’s large-scale “experiment” with mausoleums, etc.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Get thee behind me – at this point in time I so do not need to hear about good books to read! (It will be another story in April as I’m taking a couple of weeks leave during our Easter break & will be catching up on my ‘relaxation’ reading list then.)
    I wonder if I should write about ‘Stiff’… Or have I already done that? Great take on death. (Though not as great as Terry Pratchett’s!)

  • I so do not need to hear about good books to read!
    I know the feeling. My excuse is that I have to stock up for a short trip to Tonga, among other things (the reality is that really I have too many already…). In the meantime I have way to much work reading to do to read other things.
    I love the many ways you could read into the title ‘Stiff’ 🙂 Very coy. I can’t remember a review on it, but maybe it was a while ago, in which case I would have forgotten.
    Whitcoulls is selling off trade paperback copies of Dawkins’ The God Delusion for $12 if any readers are interested.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    ‘Stiff’ is excellent, although in a couple of spots I had the feeling ‘whoa! Too much information!!’ As, for example, when the author is watching trainee undertakers at work & finds out just how they keep the corpse’s mouth shut… (No, I’m not telling – go & read the book. There’s another one by the same author – Mary Roach – called ‘Bonk’. Not quite so coy…)

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