Ants have been present on Earth for 120 million years. They have reached such a level of social sophistication that it is fascinating to understand how they function.
These little insects can fascinate or repulse, but in any case, their societal model is simply incredible. The writer Bernard Werber understood it well, dedicating his highly successful trilogy, Les Fourmis (The Ants), to these little swarming insects.
Ants are divided into three castes: female workers, males and the queen. The female workers are tasked with building the general habitat and maintaining the colony. They also ensure food provision.
Thanks to their pheromones, workers can send a chemical message out once they find food, in order to ask for help with bringing it back to the ant hill. Each of them has a “social stomach”, a second stomach that allows them to store pre-digested food that can be transferred to another worker, who stows it in one of the various “attics” in the ant hill.
The workers also look after the eggs laid by the queen, acting as “nannies” who patiently await the eggs hatching, in order to look after them and feed the larvae. They also work to protect the anthill from external attacks, taking on a role as “soldiers”.
The queen is the largest of all the ants, tasked with laying eggs in order to ensure the continuation of the colony and the species, and she is the only one with the power to do so. During her lifespan (10 to 15 years), the queen can lay anywhere between thousands and millions of eggs! The “royal bedroom”, the “incubator” and the “nursery” for larvae and nymphs are all crucial places for ensuring the young grow into strong ants.
Next there are the males, whose main role is however very limited: fertilising the “princesses” chosen to become queens. One of these “princesses” will take the place of the current queen and the others will start colonies elsewhere. After mating just once, the male dies: its head explodes.
Although there are examples showing a certain pacifism among ants, they are generally war-wagers, leading battles intended to conquer new territories, and motivated by the prospective of finding food. The eternal rivalry with termites is possibly the most convincing example.
Ants are an example of a social model that is as orderly as an army base. Their architectural organisation is equally fascinating, as are their means of communication, moving around and searching for food.