Learning from Ants

They are incredibly strong, are prepared to lay down their lives for others, make excellent parents, work tirelessly for the common good and are superb engineers.

Clearly, we can learn a lot from ants.

Killian Creaner and David Connellan, students at Belvedere College, in Dublin, thought so too, and decided to investigate more about what we humans can learn from ants and how they live for their 2010 BT Young Scientist & Technology project entitled: “A study on the associations between ant colonies and human societies.”

Killian and David began by purchasing ‘ant farms’ from Argos and Toymaster. These farms provide the basic housing in which the farms can live. The next step was to buy a queen ant that would be capable of reproduction and a colony. The students bought their queen Carpenter Ant and colony on the http://www.edusci.co.uk/


The queen arrived in a test tube with water in it, for moisture and a sticky substance for food. The students set about digging out tunnels from Styrofoam in the ant house, to try and replicate, as much as possible, the ant’s natural environment. The queen was assigned to a central or main chamber, and she went there and cornered herself off. That behaviour from the queen signalled that she was about to start laying eggs.

The edusci website had provided 10 foods for the colony – the queen doesn’t feed while she is pregnant. The students found that the ants loved to eat dead insects, honey or any kind of sweet foods. They hated cinnamon, pepper and mint. They began to observe the ants closely and got in touch with a renowned German ant scientist called Bert Hölldobler to find out more about how ants communicate.

The scientist said that ants communicate with each other by spraying hormones, called pheromones. This enables one individual ant to follow a scent towards a food source that has been located by another individual ant, for example. It is thought that ants follow the scent of ants from their own colony as they navigate the environment.

The importance of scent to ant communication was shown when Bert Hölldobler investigated what happen if the line of scent was broken, said Killian. “He found that it really confused them. They need to have a line of pheromone scent to guide them.” Furthermore, if an unfortunate ant from another colony wandered in to the colony, the ants would pick up the alien scent with their antennae and attack and kill the intruder.


Ants are part of a group of insects, known as the ‘social insects’. This group includes wasps, bees and termites. It is thought that ants evolved from wasps that gave up flying about 40 million years ago, so the links are close. One key unifying feature for the group is that they all have a ‘Queen’ that is solely responsible for reproduction.

The students decided to look at ants under a number of headings, and to see what we can learn from them. Under ‘childcare’ they noted that the ants look after their young when they are injured, even when they are not their own young, as long as they are from the same colony. So there is a shared role in childcare spread among society.

There is a definite hierarchy in ant society, with everyone assigned a task, and prepared to carry out that task for the wider good. There is no-one languishing ‘on the dole’ and everyone has a job to do. Unlike the Ireland of today, no-one is out of work.

In terms of ‘education’ ants show other ants where they have found food, and they help each other to navigate through the environment. Under the heading ‘security’ it is clear that ants are prepared to put their own lives before the life of the colony, and will attack much larger creatures, such as beetles if they invade colony territory. Once they attack they will fight to the death, and there is no question of ‘taking prisoners’.

Ants are brilliant engineers and architects, and indeed there is a ‘school of thought’ that wishes to use some of their methods in the construction of human buildings. They have vents in the colony which allows air to flow through, cooling when necessary. The ants also have measures in place in terms of ‘flood control’ and sanitation.

Perhaps most impressive of all, is the awesome strength of individual ants. “Ants are extremely strong for their size,” said Killian. “Most ants can lift 20 times their body weight and can drag something 1,700 times their bodyweight, which is equivalent to a human dragging a ship.” Any creature that can do that is certainly worth of study.

First published in Science Spin, issue 42, September-October 2010