News: ants don’t actually work that hard

19 Oct|Andrew Smart

Ants are less diligent than previously thought

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard,
Observe her ways and be wise,

7 Which, having no chief,
Officer or ruler,

8 Prepares her food in the summer
And gathers her provision in the harvest.

9 How long will you lie down, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?

10 “A little sleep, a little slumber,
A little folding of the hands to rest”—

11 Your poverty will come in like a vagabond
And your need like an armed man.

Proverbs 6:6-11

The Biblical glorification of the lowly ant turns out to be a little misguided. Ants are indeed one of the most successful species on the planet. They number something like ten million billion. They have roughly the same global biomass as humans. Of course most people consider them a nuisance, but ants have inspired entire fields of research and people are now programming computer algorithms to behave more like ant colonies. Taken individually each ant is a rather stupid creature, however an ant colony is one most intelligent and adaptive biological entities in the world. But ants are not necessarily successful because of their hard labor.

Proverbs praises the ant for her diligent preparation and gathering. However, a recent study has demonstrated that the majority of ants are in fact sluggards. The study reports, “Out of the ‘workers’, 71.9% were inactive at least half the time, and 25.1% were never seen working. A small fraction of the ants, just 2.6%, were always active during observation.” The report appeared last month in science mag Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology. Previous studies have postulated that inactivity might be temporary, with ants working in shifts dictated by circadian rhythm. But the new results show that the lazy workers stay lazy no matter the time of day. According to the team, this suggests that inactivity isn’t merely a break between tasks, but might be an important part of the ants’ division of labour.

Biologists have now heeded the advice of Proverbs and observed the ways of the ant. But what they have found is that the majority of ants are idlers. The reason that ants are so successful and lazy remains somewhat of a mystery; however it’s a good bet that the ants are on to something.