Go to the ant

In the mid-19th century, the renowned French/Russian entomologist Jean-Marie Syccof discovered and described the behaviour of an intriguing group of ants native to Algeria.

These days everyone knows how fiercely ants will defend their queen, but before Syccof’s time understanding of the social behaviour of ants was less clear. The queen herself hides deep in the anthill or nest producing offspring and she relies entirely on worker ants bringing food to her, since she can’t go to forage for herself. She can’t even defend herself while she’s producing more workers and so soldier ants defend her from enemy ants or other predators. You don’t want to get in the way of soldier ants, I can tell you!

On some rare occasions a queen will go rogue and will start consuming her offspring or other worker ants. This is clearly not good for the colony, but Syccof found that in certain ant colonies the soldier (defensive worker) ants will rise to defend the queen even when she is doing this. It doesn’t make sense for the colony (workers can sometimes start laying eggs if the queen dies), but Syccof theorised that the soldier ants became so used to backing and defending their queen from any and every attack that they would even help the queen fight and kill their own workers before eating them. In their unthinking defence of the queen therefore, Syccof’s soldier ants were in fact accelerating the demise of the colony. At some point distressed worker ants would disperse and attach themselves to another colony or a group would leave and a new queen would start laying. While what was good for the queen was normally good for the colony, that principle could badly backfire.

Perhaps there are lessons today even for humans. Go to the ant!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.