On Ants and Humans

Ants – a subject I know little about, but one which fascinates me. I know I am not alone in this. Have you ever watched ants go about their daily activities for any extended period of time? I have and found it fascinating, but I am a rank amateur ant-watcher compared to some folks.

Humans – a subject more familiar to me, but one which I still do not claim to understand that well. People-watching is as intriguing as ant-watching, and, indeed, there seem to be many similarities between the two species and their behaviors.


I think about ants on the relatively rare occasions when they invade our kitchen, usually on days which are unusually cold, hot, or wet. A few well-placed spray-lines of RAID near outside entry points always takes care of the problem for at least a few months. I know that other people are not quite so fortunate in halting ant invasions. I also know that ants are out there, underground in our backyard, in very great numbers. At our house, my wife and I and the ants outside seem to have reached a mutual understanding of and a tolerance for each another.

An interesting phenomenon I have observed many times is their habit of periodically “venting” their underground tunnel networks. Our brick patio will, virtually overnight, sprout several little debris mounds emanating from tiny holes in the brick mortar. This usually happens during hot weather, hence my assumption that they are attempting to air-out their habitat. Except when they are doing the work on these vents, no parades of ants can be seen coming and going from these holes. Apparently their front and back doors are elsewhere in our backyard. If I sweep away one of these debris mounds, partially plugging the hole in the process, it is literally only a matter of hours before a new mound has formed.


One of recent history’s most intriguing and widely-read scientists, Richard Feynman, was interested in most everything else in addition to atomic physics and quantum theory. Among the many entrancing anecdotes contained in Richard Feynman’s best-selling book from the mid-eighties, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is a section describing his encounters with ants.


In his book, he relates an incident while a physics student at Princeton University: “In my room at Princeton I had a bay window with a U-shaped windowsill. One day some ants came out on the windowsill and wandered around a little bit. I got curious as to how they found things. I wondered, how do they know where to go? Can they tell each other where food is, like bees can? Do they have any sense of geometry? This is all amateurish; everybody knows the answer, but I didn’t know the answer so…..”

He goes on to describe several simple, but clever observational experiments he conducted to get his answers – just the sort of attitude one would expect from a brilliant future Nobel Prize Laureate in physics. In fairly short order, he learned quite a lot about ants by asking simple questions and conducting clever investigations  – a formula reminiscent of Albert Einstein’s approach when pondering great problems in physics. Feynman, whose reputation for out-of-the-box thinking placed him in some very elite physics circles, rubbed elbows with Einstein throughout his career.

But, back to ants! Feynman concluded from his observations that ants have no sense of direction, but they do lay down a “trail” when they travel. That probably explains why ants are continually bumping into each other when they are going in opposite directions while following an established trail. One fascinating conclusion he reached involves the second of two ants who each randomly stumble upon a distant sugar cube after coming down separate trails from a common starting point (let us call it the “nest”). The first ant locates the sugar cube, turns around and follows his original trail back to the nest – with good news to relate. When the second ant quite accidentally also discovers the sugar cube in his path after traveling along a different trail from the nest, it always follows the trail of the first ant back to the nest – not his own original trail. Feynman concluded that the first ant typically heads back to the nest along his original trail to the sugar – its only choice of established trails – but in retracing his steps back to the starting point, it laid down a different scent or a stronger scent during the return trip – one that indicates….FOOD. That would explain why the second ant follows the trail of the first ant back to the nest, and not his own. Seemingly, that ingrained behavior is how a large number of ants quickly congregates along a common pathway to and from a food source. It is all quite fascinating. Are there any of us out there who have not experienced the outcome of this “ant strategy” in the form of long columns of ants on the kitchen counter?

Feynman also relates in his book how ants “partner” with aphids in the garden by transporting them bodily from plants which are dying (due to being ravaged by aphids) to healthy plants. The ants are literally caretakers of aphids. Why? Because the ants harvest partially digested aphid juice called “honeydew” directly from the aphid’s stomach in a miniature stomach-pumping operation. Feynman describes how he once directly observed this behavior under a microscope.

Is there any doubt that fact is stranger and more wonderful than fiction – especially in the hands of mother-nature? I love the way Feynman is sucked-in by his wide-ranging curiosity about all things, and I love the way he relates the subsequent experiences in his books. The subtitle of “Surely You’re Joking…”  is: Adventures of a Curious Character. Curiosity is the wellspring of eventual knowledge and understanding. I can cite no better examples than Feynman and Einstein. In Feynman’s case, “Curious Character” comes complete with double-entendre.

Feynman’s most famous/important writings (excluding his pioneering physics papers), can be found in the familiar set of The Feynman Lectures On Physics. These three volumes resulted from Cal-Tech’s attempt to liven its undergraduate physics program in the early nineteen-sixties. Feynman, then on the faculty and heavily involved exclusively with advanced graduate students in physics, was recruited to devise a set of lectures and personally deliver them in his own inimitable style to first-year undergraduates in physics. His fresh, intuitive, yet thorough way of presenting physics produced standing-room only attendance at those courses, and, ultimately, this compendium of lectures which are legendary, today.


 Ant Societies and Human Beings

When I watch ants moving about, and I consider what little I actually know about them and their societies, I nevertheless cannot help drawing parallels between them and human beings. In human society, it is difficult enough to stand-out – to be noticed. It strikes me that much of the popularity of social media today is based on our human need to be recognized (and remembered) as individuals. Why else would today’s teens routinely report to each other what they are having for lunch at a particular moment, or that they just got out of the shower, or that the sky seems to be falling – well, that last one, I can understand! Except for the sky falling, does anyone really care about routine personal events? I think that frequent  text-ers are responding to the human urge to be visible to others – as much as possible. Yes, even us bloggers are at least partially motivated by the need to be recognized, to be noticed – it’s true!

It seems that the ants must have it much worse than humans in an individual sense given that ant societies only appear interested in the collective good and survival of the colony. Personal anonymity is perhaps not so painful to the ant as it is to the human; it all depends on the nature of our hard-wiring! The only ant which is deservedly doted upon as special is the queen – for good reason!

I have watched swarms of ants and long-crowded trails of ants and noted the semi-haphazard way they make their way through the crowd. Yes, they do have a plan, a motivation behind all that activity, but in getting where they are going, they continuously bump into one another and crawl over one another, without so much as a “pardon me!” Such a picture reminds me of the morning commute, here in Silicon Valley, California. Long trails of cars streaming down ribbon “trails” of concrete, a blizzard of cars at intersections, trying to make their way across, sometimes aggressively and with honking horns. Fortunately, head-on collisions are relatively rare along the trails traveled in human society compared to the world of ants, yet there are still too many of them.

The programmed rituals of both societies seem to me eerily similar. There is a difference, however. Ants and their societies are primarily “hard-wired” via instinct – at least it seems. We humans also have sections of our brain hard-wired by mother-nature, but we can make conscious decisions which change our immediate behaviors and situations. For example: Many come to this California valley for its weather and its opportunity, but many also leave here, disillusioned and uncomfortable with the growing personal anonymity which necessarily comes with numerical density. An individual, here, can decide to move to Bend, Oregon for its scenic beauty, and a less hectic and more personal lifestyle. I cannot imagine a parallel of that sort in an ant society.

Short of long-term evolutionary impacts, ant societies have gone through the exact same motions for many thousands of years, with little to show for it except for survival and a role in the earth’s ecology. Humans have much to show for their societies’ efforts – mostly due to scientific discovery and technological creativity. In that regard, the change in the human landscape has been absolutely phenomenal over just the last four hundred years.

And yet, the most fascinating conclusion of all: While our technological capability has grown so dramatically, basic human nature (our hard-wired behavioral instincts) have changed very little over many thousands of years!

When I think of ants and I think of humans, I conclude that mother-nature still fundamentally rules – even human societies with all their “progress.” We do technology, and ants do not, but the real question is, “What will we do with it all?”

On my bookshelves is a little book which I bought a couple of years ago – one of those which you know you should read and will read….someday! The more I think about ants, the more likely I will take it down soon and start reading.