Labour Love: An ant’s world
Think hard work and sheer hard work, and more often than not, the childhood fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, springs to mind! How we celebrated the ant who slogged day in and day out to bring a semblance of stability, never blinking for a minute! And then there was the dandy grasshopper, caught in the throes of fun and friskiness! Labour Day just around the corner on 1st May, what better way to pay a tribute to the “Love of Labour” than by knowing about the tiny ant’s world!
Be it the tiny creature scurrying about your home and garden, or the forest dwelling species with their special labour capacities, all ants seem to be experts at doing work and doing it tirelessly without a word (Or so we think of the tiny world out there!). Designers, architects, construction workers, you name it and some member of the colony may fit this tag! With all those labourers toiling away, we thought of exploring some commonly seen ones!
Harvester ants: These are the gatherers of yesteryears, they subsist by gathering and storing. In fact, harvester ant is a generic name for species of ants that collect seeds, a term called ‘seed predation’. To make this storage system efficient, harvesters build a ground nest that looks like a spiral from top view. Brilliance in design would be an understatement. What appears to be a mound of fine dirt is in fact, a complex web of caverns with specialized cooling and drying cells to keep the seeds edible. And very smartly, they remove the plumule of the seeds so that it doesn’t germinate and result in a wastage of efforts! Some intelligent work they do!
- Leaf-cutter ants: These are the agrarian experts, cultivating fungi in their nests on a substrate of plant and lead litter cuts. They work tirelessly to bring leaves from all over into their “fungi farms”, and spend time cutting it into smaller pieces, thereafter treating it with their fecal liquid.
- Pagoda Ants: These are the arboreal experts. These Crematogasters weave their tree-nests by chewing the bark, dry leaves, mixing it with saliva and mud to form a sticky paste. This is then used to build the “pagoda” shaped nest. Quite an extensive process that uses the internal as well as external capabilities of the ants!
- Army ants: Marching away with head held high- sounds like a new-age man-army? Nopes, it is an onslaught of age-old army ants. The supreme predators, many of which are blind, a super case for differently abled skills! They are unabated once they set their eyes on a task at hand, namely a precious prey.
- Weaver Ants: Red weaver ants i.e. Oecophylla are commonly seen weaving together leaves. Here, the young ones are made to work too! The larvae are held by the worker ants in their jaws and rubbed against the leaves, these larvae then secrete a sticky material (called silk) from their glands, and other weaver ants hold the leaves together and sew it with the silk. An unparalleled example of team work!
These are just some of the examples of ant’s fascinating professional lives!
Why are ants successful at labour?
Ever wondered what is the motivator that makes the tiny creature lift a weight ten times its own and carry it ten times over? Definitely not the dangling carrot of an increment or a job raise! Rather, studies of social species like ants lead us to believe that their success stems from a unique organisation of labour within the group.
An ant colony has long been treated as a model of labour-intensive efficient society. Ants have mastered the art of optimizing labour by turning to division of labour, so much so that these differences may manifest morphologically in some! A typical ant colony, also called a formicary, contains an egg-laying queen and numerous adult workers along with eggs, larvae and pupae. An ant is assigned a role depending on its “profile” which may be dictated by demographics such as age. For example, some research indicates that more senior ants may take up outside, riskier, foraging roles, while junior individuals may be assigned nursing and cleaning tasks closer home within the safety of the nest. Such are the virtues of this wonder worker, that it was way back in the 1970s when renowned biologist E O Wilson went forth with ant research to understand “division of labour” better. During those days Wilson concluded that an ant’s role is pretty must “cast in stone” i.e. unchangeable. However, today we know that ants are not just hard workers but smart workers too! A “job rotation” system ensues, and an ant’s role changes with its age and other external conditions such as changing needs of the colony. Clearly, the ant is not only a jack of all trades, but a master of all too! Now it doesn’t seem surprising that some of us specialize in accounts, some in marketing and others become the CEO! And are still expected to contribute to anything and everything!
So the next time you try to shoo away that long line of ants going about their business, spare them a thought of respect and wonder! If only we had those precise organizing skills and the penchant to persist, our big world would be a very different one! Definitely a thing or two worth learning from these masters of labour, this Labour Day!
Credit: Rhucha Kulkarni