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The Secret Lives of Ants

You wouldn’t know it watching ants as they seem to wander aimlessly in the dirt but their closely mirrors that of the human race. Ants were “ranching and farming” aphids when humanity’s earliest possum-like ancestors were still stealing dinosaur eggs. Ants organize themselves into deadly armies capable of waging large-scale battle complete with chemical warfare, captured prisoners, massacres, and atrocities. And they invented assembly line production 100 million years before Henry Ford was born.

Ants build mysterious, complex nests with interwoven tubes, elliptical lobes, and soaring chambers that rival the finest sculptures conceived by the human mind. According to Myrmecologist Walter Tschinkel of the University of Florida, each of the thousands of earth-nesting ant species has a specific nest design, and each builds from a particular set of rules. And they do so without a leader or a plan. They can also work in total darkness, tunneling as much as 15 feet underground.

Ants need those nests because they live in a matriarchal society in which the queen rules all. The queen only needs to be fertilized once in its lifetime and if its 72° or warmer, she can lay 1,000 eggs a day for 10 to 20 years. The queen can determine the number of male and female eggs she produces depending on the situation in the colony. Most ants are sterile females but when the queen wants to expand her colony she’ll produce male ants whose only purpose is to mate.

Inside the colony millions of ants organize themselves to perform numerous complicated tasks including looking after the brood, taking care of the queen, patrolling the nest for intruders, constructing new rooms, foraging for food, and cleaning up endless piles of ant poop. All of these decisions, when to go for food, when to build, are made by individual ants based only on information they have in front of them. Despite the decentralized control, ants operate with a hive mind in order to further the needs of the colony. With no control center to break down, the colony can’t fail.

Even as ants define the concepts of self-sacrifice, industry, and division of labor, they also reflect human emotions. Ants can be angry, playful, and socially cooperative. Whether you love them or hate them, ants have perfected a socially centered organized civilization that has few rivals in the natural world.