Cooperation and a division of labor performed without a leader in ant society

It is known that various creatures have abilities superior to those of human beings.

For example, it is said that compared to human beings, dogs have a sense of smell 1,000 to 100 million times keener and cats have a sense of hearing four times keener. The jumping power of fleas is 150 times greater than their height, and if human beings had this power, they could jump over a 30-floor skyscraper. Similarly, ants, who are familiar creatures for us, have abilities that far exceed the abilities of human beings.

When it comes to ants, many people may think of their foraging activity in a group. Each ant secretes a pheromone (attractant) and other ants follow the pheromone so that a long line connecting their nest to the food is maintained. In other words, many ants share information about the whereabouts of food via pheromones as a language.

However, their activities are not limited to this.

For example, leafcutter ants that are seen in tropical areas do not directly collect their food, but gather leaves, culture fungi in the leaves, and feed on the fungi. This means that leafcutter ants conduct an activity that is like the farming of human beings.

Leafcutter ants do not carry out one task together. Instead, they share specifically divided roles such as picking leaves, cutting the leaves into an appropriate sizes, fixing fungi firmly in place, and protecting the fungi culturing site from enemies.

This means that the leafcutter ants do not merely act in a group but manage a colony by a highly advanced system of labor division.

Leafcutter ants are thought to have used this sort of system to start their own farming approximately 50 million years ago. Since human beings started farming approximately 10,000 years ago, there is a huge difference in the durability and stability between the farming of leafcutter ants and human beings.

In fact, not only leafcutter ants but also the ants around us manage a single colony through cooperation and labor division, although they do not culture fungi. In other words, each ant takes on a specific role, including foraging, child-rearing, and nest expansion.

As a mechanism for making such a system work well, we can imagine, for example, that the queen ant gives instructions, and the worker ants divide the work based on these instructions.

However, as researchers have examined the ecology of ants, a leader who dictates the division of labor does not exist.

For example, since the queen ant is named queen, she is often misunderstood, but she plays the role of reproduction, and certainly not of being the control tower in the colony.

Although a pheromone that is a substance for sharing information exists, this does not mean that one of the ants dictates the division of labor to the other ants through the pheromone.

Each colony, which often consists of 10,000 or more individual ants, prospers by cooperation and a division of labor that is based on the self-determination of each ant.

Put in terms of human society, this would be a country where there is no king, prime minister, or president, and each citizen judges the situation by himself or herself, and always takes on the role best suited to the moment for the continuing prosperity of the entire society. In a sense, you might say that it is an ideal country.

It has not been sufficiently clarified how ants are able to have a society of self-divided labor without a leader. The more you study them, the more you will find out how great ants are.

Mathematically modeling the activities of ants and applying those models to human society

As a method for systematically observing the activities of ants, we use RFID tags. The size of each chip of the RFID tags is 0.5 mm × 0.5 mm, which is the world’s smallest chip, and each chip is attached to each ant as a tag.

Then, sensors are installed at important points such as a location between their nest and a feeding site. Accordingly, when and where each ant has passed is recorded, and the record is integrated into the big data of ant society.

As a result, various things that had not been known have been discovered.

For example, it seems that in an ant colony, for each task, there are ants who are hardworking and ants that are lazy. In recent years, a phenomenon has been reported both inside and outside Japan in which, when the hardworking ants are taken out of the colony, the ants that had been lazy until then start working. This is a mechanism in which, when the ones who have borne a role disappear, other ones start working, and we call this the “labor-compensation property.”

The point is that the optimal personnel take on the task so that, when viewed as a whole group, better work efficiency is maintained.

Furthermore, a “labor-cooperation property” was observed in which a fixed number of worker groups in the colony actively work for a certain period of time, and then, the working ants are replaced in other groups for a short period of time.

This means that even while the workers are replaced, the colony as a whole is always operated in a stable manner.

Let me repeat: The ants act as described above not by following instructions from someone else but based on their own judgment made in a timely manner.

Of course, the brains of ants are small and cannot perform complicated information processing. However, in a group, the ants can realize a highly advanced social system.

Attempts have long been made to explain the activities of ants in a group, and it has been learned that the expression of the “labor-compensation property” described above can be reproduced with high accuracy by a computer simulation based on mathematical models. However, careful examination and discussion are necessary for several of the hypotheses used for the models: that is, the mechanism of how each ant makes a judgment, how information is transmitted among individual ants, and so on.

One of the hypotheses is that the level of sensitivity to a risk to the entire colony differs among the individual ants.

For example, the limit of each ant’s patience with how much food in the colony should be depleted before working or how dirty their nest should be before cleaning varies depending on the ant.

In the first place, the question of why ants who were born of the same queen ant have such individual differences arises. The answer might have to be left to epigenetics, a discipline that deals with phenomena in which genes are controlled a posteriori.

In addition, the question of how each ant can know what the risk to the entire colony is also arises. The ability to infer system-wide information from partial information is connected to an idea of statistical science called Bayesian inference, and a simple mechanism that performs processing similar to this may be effectively built into the brains of ants.

I think that if such a problem is solved and mathematical models of the activities of ants are completed, these models can be applied to problem solving in human society.

Durability and stability learned from ants

We can learn a lot from the activities of ants. One example is a mechanism of society in which individuals’ characters, that is, diversity, is utilized to operate various tasks more efficiently.

Moreover, even if some sort of trouble occurs in one section, lazy workers in that task, that is, a standby group or those who are usually engaged in other tasks, immediately compensate for the trouble, so that the mechanism of a stable ant society in which the entire society is not affected by the trouble is fully durable and stable. This is now gathering attention as a system to be built into human society.

Now, Japan is striving for Society 5.0 as a form of near-future society. I think that for this purpose, a method should be employed in which accumulated big data is controlled in a centralized manner by a supercomputer such as Fugaku, and ICT and IoT are used to make each machine and function operate efficiently.

On the other hand, if we can find out more about the mechanism, just like the ant society, in which burdens of various tasks are smoothly dispersed and processed through the gathering of individuals that work autonomously, we may be able to make a smooth and efficient operation of an entire society possible by merely allowing each apparatus to have a simple function or information processing ability.

As a result, the future society may be realized earlier without a large-scale infrastructure development.

We can also learn how to live our lives from ants.

For example, keeping pace toward one goal has been considered as one of the characteristics of the Japanese people, and this characteristic was utilized during periods such as the high economic growth period.

However, in a society in which the population is decreasing, and rather stable growth and enrichment and happiness of individuals are pursued, isn’t it rather inefficient if everyone gets started at once in the same manner?

This would mean a society in which the right people work in the right places, rest after work, lend a hand when a problem occurs so as to cover each other’s weaknesses, and thus overall stability and efficiency can be maintained.

If each person can act like this by self-determination in society, this may be ideal. We can take a hint from Mr. and Mrs. Ant – to give them honorific titles.

* The information contained herein is current as of January 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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