A while back I came across an ancient proverb from the Middle East:

harvester-antGo to the ant you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise; who, having no guide, overseer or ruler, provides her bread in the summer and gathers her food in the harvest.  Proverbs 6:6-8.

Hmmm… it sounded like an interesting challenge, so recently, I decided to accept the challenge and consider what life metaphors can be found by observing ants. However, I cheated a bit, instead of literally observing ant behavior myself, I decided to take a short-cut by reading Dr. Deborah Gordon’s book, Ants at Work: How an insect society is organized. After all, this book is a summary of Dr. Gordon’s observations and research with red harvester ant colonies conducted over 17 consecutive summers. She is a serious student of ant behavior.

I realize the specie of harvester ants Dr. Gordon studied (Pogonomyrmex barbatus) are not one of the many harvester ant species found in the Middle East (i.e. messsor semirufus, m. arenarius, etc.) within the stomping grounds of Solomon (the ancient King of Israel who is credited as the author of this proverb). So, maybe Solomon had some different observations than those of Dr. Gordon since ant behaviors vary. However, the proverb does not specify a particular species of ant among the hundreds of possible species. But his observations are consistent with harvester ants and harvester ants around the world hold many common behavioral characteristics even if they are of different genus. For example, none of them have leaders, all of them live in complex colonies, have division of labor, and collect and store up food (usually seeds) for winter. As I read Ants at Work,I wondered, “What did the author of this ancient proverb want people to learn by observing ants?” I am still processing, but this essay is a brief summary of my initial musings.

First, I learned that practically all ants you ever see are female. This would explain a lot! 🙂 Women all over the world work hard to take care of their families. I wonder if Solomon knew that all worker ants are female since he refers to ants using a feminine pronoun? How could he have known? It turns out, that male red harvester ants are winged and live only a few weeks, they come out of the nest once (all on the same day) to mate and then die a few hours or days later. Otherwise, all the ants working inside and outside the nest are sterile females. There is only one queen ant per colony and she produces all the eggs for her colony. The queen lives 15-20 years but the worker ants in her colony (her offspring) live only one year or less. When the queen dies her colony will die out within a year. Once a year, winged male and females ants comes out of their mother’s nest to mate. The females mate once (thousands of them on the same day with winged males from other colonies). That same day the fertilized females will attempt to dig themselves a 20-30cm long tunnel where they hope to begin their own colony. Very few actually survive to do it. But if successful, within five years the queen will be producing 10,000 daughters a year for the next 10 to 15 years. The queen gives no ‘leadership’ to her colony nor assigns worker ants their roles. She stays underground her entire life laying eggs fertilized by that single mating act in her first and only foray above ground. She is the queen but not the leader. There are no leaders among ants but ant colonies preform complex tasks within complex and changing environments.

Dr. Gordon observed that within an ant colony there is a clear division of labor among the worker ants. Inside the nest worker ants tend the queen, the brood, pile-up stored food, make tunnels and inner chambers, and mill around. No one is telling these ants what to do, when to wake up, and when to rest. Ants that work underground are younger than the ants who work outside above ground. Outside the nest there are four distinct occupational roles; nest maintenance, foragers, patrollers, and midden (waste removal) workers. Ants can switch occupations depending on the need. There is strong evidence to suggest that these task allocation among worker ants is affected by cues from the environment like heat, humidity, food availability, etc.

The exterior workers make up 25% of the colony and live in the upper chamber of the nest. Interior ants eventually join the exterior workforce but at any given time the interior and exterior workers are distinct groups. Once an inside ant joins the exterior workforce she never returns to the interior workforce. The ants working outside the nest are in the last few weeks of their lives. The chores done outside the nest are done in the same sequence every day starting soon after sunrise. The first ants out of the nest are the maintenance workers and the patrollers. The maintenance workers come out is small bursts of eight or 10 carry a grain of soil in their mandibles and place it outside the mound, then return immediately into the nest for more. The exterior ants are part of a relay system that transfers food and waste between the deeper parts of the nest and the world outside. When foragers bring in food, they drop it in a chamber inside the nest entrance. Other worker ants come rushing out of the nest, walking over seeds. Other ants come from below, pick up the seeds, and carry them down to other worker ants in the interior that store the seed in neat piles deep in the nest.

Harvester ant colonies perform many tasks including collecting and distributing food, building and maintaining nest, caring for eggs, larvae, and pupae, and responding to changes in their food supplies or damage to their nests without any central or hierarchical control to direct them into particular tasks. The colony is active in the summer but appears to close down in winter. The ants stay underground during the winter and feed on their stored food supply. The individual capacity of an ant seems limited to make only fairly simple decisions. An ant is not very smart and cannot make complicated assessments and probably cannot remember anything for very long. Its behavior is based on what it perceives in its immediate environment. An ant lives in the “present” even if it stores food for the future.

I find these observations extremely interesting in their own right, but what did Solomon really want us to learn from these fascinating little communal creatures? We can only guess, but I suggest Solomon believed that tiny simple-minded ants can be excellent metaphors to teach us large complicated humans. Consider the following:

  1. Work ethic – even the simple minded ant works hard during times of plenty to survive during times of scarcity. When we humans experience a time of abundance we should work hard to “harvest” all that we can rather than sit back and be lazy. Times of scarcity will certainly come in the future and we should work while there is opportunity to do so. Make hay while the sun shines.
  2. If simple ants have no need of task masters is it not possible that humans could do without them as well? Are we humans more simple-minded than ants? What is it that allows ants to work without task masters but humans seem to depend on them? Humans must come to their senses and display the wisdom and dignity we were born with. Work and do not be lazy. When humans work, task masters and supervisors are not always necessary. There is dignity in work but not in laziness.

The concept that ants are leaderless is fascinating to me. It is doubtful that ants have much if any memory. They seem to live for work. In any case, ants have a reputation of being diligent workers. In my own experience in leading people, I have observed large teams of skilled people consistently perform complex tasks successfully without there being a designated leader among them This is especially true when the people have a mutually compatible work ethic.

I believe that a key lesson we can glean from the ant metaphor is: 1) When there is a strong work ethic (particularly diligence, perseverance, and interdependence) among people who 2) know their work priorities, and 3) are competent to perform their work responsibilities THEN there is little or no need for leadership. I also suspect that ants are not encumbered by the desire for power, self-preservation, and greediness like us humans. So, in addition, perhaps humans who are humble, others-centered, and forgiving can succeed without overseers better than those who aren’t. This is consistent with my experience. What are your thoughts?