1. Swarming and building a colony
This corresponds to the beginning of new lives but above all of a new colony. With the arrival of spring, the princesses of each colony leave to build a new one, leaving pheromones behind. Pheromones are hormonal molecules deposited on the ground that act on the ants' receptors to provide binary information, either of attraction or of repulsion. The information and communicational metaphor of pheromones transmission and reception is evident. The males and young workers follow the princesses and help with the construction. In reality, the males have only one role, that of mating. After that, they die within hours or days. The princess, now queen, digs into the earth and lays her eggs. This is her only function. The BBC 2013 documentary “Planet Ant: Life inside the Colony” showed that a queen lays about 30,000 eggs.
2. The search for food
In 2006, researchers at the University of Bristol, England, spent many hours examining Temnothorax albipennis ants in search of food. They found that one or two ants would initially venture out on their own. Once the food is found, they return to the colony to alert other workers. The lead ants (the ones who found the food) show the way to the followers. But how do they manage to find their way back? Well, once again thanks to those famous pheromones! The ant leaves its scent at every crossing where it finds food. For example, if it finds food on the right-hand path, it leaves its pheromones there. If it finds no food on the left-hand side, it returns to the intersection without leaving any scent on that path. So, when it returns with the troop, it simply follows the path it had built. There again, the informational simile of pheromones is evident.
3. Recognition within the colony
Dominique Fresneau, Director of the ethology laboratory at the University of Paris-XIII studies the biology and social behaviour of ants. He is interested in the colonial identity of ants and notes that they discriminate between fellow workers and foreigners. But how do they know who is part of their colony and who is not? Fresneau shows that during an encounter, each ant integrates three signals:
The anthill exhibition workshop
Why does such a small insect fascinate the whole of humanity? The French writer, Jean de La Fontaine illustrated this very well with his well-known fable "The Cicada and the Ant" (La cigale et la fourmi). This story highlighted the fundamental values of the ant, namely hard work and an ethics of industry. For centuries, ants have been the subject of scientific research, particularly their methods of communication within their communities. Ants thus attracted the curiosity of many "myrmecologists", the researchers who study them, because of their sense of organisation which requires organised, sophisticated, and elaborate communication. But ants are not only of interest to science and literature. Did you know that ants have a history in monotheistic religions? They are mentioned several times in the Bible and in the Koran.
With this exhibition, the students illustrated the communication of ants using as theoretical background Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics.
While there are more than 12 000 species of ants today, the exhibit used the common specie as illustration.
4. Reacting to danger
Scientists at the University of Bristol in the UK studied the unitary appearance of ants when the colony is threatened by a predator. Once again, the research shows that these insects react as a single organism.
When an enemy threatens one or more ants, the ants release so-called 'alarm' pheromones. Many ants from their colony then appear and come to their aid. The ants surround the adversary, curl their abdomens between their hind legs and spray the adversaries with formic acid, capable of killing them. Since 1990, ants have killed more than 50 million crabs.
Ants do not only defend themselves, they also attack!
As soon as they feel in danger, they use their sense of cooperation to eradicate all potential enemies. For example, they kill wasps that move into the vicinity of their ant hills. The latter, feeding at the same time, can harm their crops.
5. Self isolation to save the colony
German researchers from the University of Regensburg have also shown that when faced with a disease, the contaminated ant self-isolates so as not to contaminate the rest of the colony. It breaks off all social relations voluntarily with its own kind and goes off to die far from the colony, in a little-used area. Doesn’t this echo the current covid19 pandemic where humans are being told to self-isolate to preserve other human lives? The ants apparently knew to do this for survival without being forced by legislation and fines and without protesting! We have a lot to learn from nature...
Mark Goldman, professor and researcher at the University of California compared the organisation of ants to that of neurones. Just as a neurone is activated when it receives a certain amount of signals from other neurones, an ant stimulates its fellow ants when it warns them that it has found food. After processing the information, there are two possibilities: Nothing happens. The foraging ants go back to doing their thing (negative feedback). The ants decide to leave the anthill and search for food with the information carrier (positive feedback).
Professor Jeremy Thomas of Oxford University has demonstrated, by placing microphones and ultra-precise headphones in the ants' shelter, that the worker ants are regulated by the queen's commands. Through this experiment, he discovered that "in response to various sounds, ants produce equally varied sounds". Thus, the ants adapt to each sound, as they do to each pheromone.
Ants are constantly seeking a balance with their environment. Communication is therefore essential to them. If they were unable to understand the information carried by each other's pheromones, they could not survive. The sophisticated information and communication mechanisms and devices inbuilt in these tiny organisms enable the whole ecosystem to survive. Without correct interpretation of these signals, the whole anthill will be doomed.