Ant Psychology: How Ant Colonies Think

How smart are ants? We're here to tell you. Read on to learn about their sophisticated thought processes

Learn just how smart ant colonies are

Both scientists and lay people have been fascinated by ant colonies for generations. This is probably because, unlike most other insects, we are allowed a glimpse into their complex societies every time we watch an anthill, or a seemingly well-organized parade of worker ants transporting food back to their nest. It’s clear that the methods ants use to organize their worlds are incredibly successful, and understanding how ants think makes it easier to understand how an ant infestation might occur in your home.

Ants live almost everywhere on earth except in the coldest climates. They can be found deep in a rain forest, or on a city sidewalk. In fact, ants outnumber humans on our planet to such an extent that if all the earth’s ants were weighed together and all the earth’s humans were weighed together, the weight of the ants would be about the same as that of humans, despite their tiny individual sizes.

A Queen in Name Only

When we watch ants scurrying about their business in what looks like such an organized and highly efficient manner, most of us assume that they must be acting under the direction of an incredibly talented leader, probably the famous queen of the ant mound. But in truth, the so-called queen has no authority, or even control, over the rest of the colony. Queens are remarkable in that they live longer than any other insect. One queen ant was held in captivity for studies by a German Entomologist for over 28 years. In spite of their longevity and the royal treatment they receive from the worker ants in the colony, their only function is to lay the eggs that ensure the survival of the colony.

In fact, the amazing thing about ant colonies is that they run such highly successful and efficient societies with no leadership at all. Instead they function under a groupthink, or collective intelligence, that is still very much a mystery to researchers. No one give orders in an ant colony, yet each ant decides what it should do next and carries out its task as though under direction. One researcher compares this to a soccer team. During a game, no one player is directing or giving orders, yet each individual makes decisions and carries out actions to benefit the entire team.

How Ants Communicate and Share Information

Ants understand and pass on understanding of their environment through pheromone signals. They leave and pick up information in their surrounding areas through pheromone messages until a large collection of information about their surroundings is available to the whole colony. It’s similar to our own internet. A lot of information is collected, organized and stored to be accessed as needed. In fact, colonies that have been around for a long period of time appear to be more adaptable, resilient, and better run than newer colonies, because more information is stored.

Each ant seems to follow a daily route as a scout around the mound. As an ant ages, he takes a younger ant on his route to impart his knowledge before he dies, showing that ants have some concept of the future, including an awareness of their own mortality and that the colony must go on without them.

According to a professor of biology at Stanford University in California, ant colonies have collective memories that the individual ants don’t have. It’s comparable to the way the individual neurons in our brains don’t have the capability of memory, but all the neurons functioning together allow the brain to have a memory.

The Successful Collective

Ants may not think or behave the way humans do, but their system of collective intelligence has been highly successful for them. Large tasks seem to be organized and carried out effortlessly without direction despite each ant giving the appearance of working independently. It’s every CEO's dream. For instance, leaf-cutter ants cut and harvest leaves that grow fungi. Workers forage for leaves hundreds of yards from their nests and form ant highways for easily transporting leaves to the nest. Some ants use their own bodies to form bridges over gaps so their fellow workers can transport materials to the nest.

The concept of a collective intelligence is something that has captured the imagination and interest people for years. It’s fascinating to consider that a group of individuals together can form a much greater intelligence than the individuals on their own are capable of. A better understanding of these tiny creatures might make it easier to understand how to prevent ant problems. Because as fascinating as they are, we don't necessarily want to share our homes with them!

Resources— Stanford University, The Fountain, The Vital Edge