Ants versus Humans

Ants are among the most numerous and versatile animals on Earth. They prefer tropical rainforests, but they also manage to survive in scorching deserts, and they survive long, cold winters by hibernating and huddling together in the millions. They don’t have any problems with landscapes altered for human purposes. Indeed, my house appears to be an ant-paradise (probably due to my three kids inadvertently leaving ant-goodies everywhere).

Like us, ants have developed and refined agriculture. They cultivate hundreds of different species of fungus, which are fertilized, weeded, pruned and propagated. They even apply antibiotics to keep unwanted fungus away from their crops. They have also domesticated animals (especially aphids and caterpillars), which are milked systematically for their nutritious excretions (1).

The development of food production systems has permitted high population densities, and as in humans, this has allowed for specialization and a sophisticated social organization, including queens, workers, soldiers, slaves, babysitters, thieves, and even pet ants.

Ants managed this magnificent feat about 50 million years before us, with brains that are about a millionth the size of ours. They thus have a substantial head-start compared to us, and indeed they vastly outnumber us. There are about a million ants for each one of us.

What can we learn from the ants? Is their specialization and organization something we should aim for? Leave your thoughts below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.

(1) Saxe, L. & P. Gepts (2008) “Non-Human Farmers: Ants, Termites, and Beetles and Gadagkar, R. (2000) “The True Origin of Agriculture: The Credit Goes to Ants.”


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