2007.10.17 Old ants are taking risks

Written by David Green.


It’s a little late in the season to bring up the subject of ants, but I just read some fascinating facts about the little six-leggeds that so outnumber us two-leggeds.

First of all, I discovered something that those in the ant business have known for years: Worker ants take greater risks as they grow older.

Risky activities are best done by ants coming to the end of their useful lives. Save the 20-somethings for the future. Let them clean up around the house and send the 60- and 70-year-olds out to forage for food.

News to me, but old hat to ant scientists. What’s news to even the ant people is that ants seems to know how much time they have left before cashing in their worldly chips.

A man named Moron proved this fact with his collection of common elbowed red ants.

Dawid Moron is a Polish scientist at Jagiellonian University. He came up with a way to age ants by injecting carbon dioxide into the nest. This increases the acidity of the blood and shortens the ants’ life span.

As Dr. Moron predicted, the ants that he made “older” began foraging farther afield for food—a dangerous enterprise when “farther afield” includes my kitchen.

What might this behavior mean if humans also followed the pattern? If Dr. Moron were to pump carbon dioxide into your house, those of you nearing retirement might get a hankering to cut some timber. Logging is said to be the most dangerous job in America, according to fatality studies.

You might want to head to the seas as a commercial fisherman or become a pilot. The remaining top-10 most dangerous careers are structural metal workers, delivery jobs such as pizza drivers, roofers, electric power installers, farm workers, construction workers and truck drivers.

Despite the falling objects, drownings, crashes and electrocutions, the most common way to die on the job comes at the hands of your fellow worker or someone you encounter while working. Assaults and violence lead the way to death on the job, which must be why pizza deliverers make the top 10 list.

It’s the same for ants. The common elbowed red ant is described as a very aggressive sort that injects poison into its prey and watches it slowly become incapacitated. Risky business if you attack an aggressive fellow.

Stray into another colony’s territory and there’s trouble ahead. You don’t smell right and an attack is imminent. Slave raider ants steal eggs from other colonies and can often face attack from those looking to defend their brood.

For ants, it’s all about altruism—working for the betterment of the colony, laying down their lives for the queen. It’s a matter of unusual genetics for ants. The female workers are more closely related to their sisters than to their offspring.

In the article I read, the author wonders whether ant behavior can help explain human behavior. In general, human parents have extreme devotion to their children, primarily to their own, followed by children of their closest relatives.

But there are also conscious acts of altruism shown toward complete strangers, and that isn’t as easily explained unless it’s something along the lines of “I’ll help you now, you’ll help me later.”

So, are you ready to follow King Solomon’s advice and look to the ant for wisdom? “Consider her ways and be wise,” he said.

As John Greenleaf Whittier tells the story of King Solomon and the ants: “Happy must be the State/Whose ruler heedeth more/The murmurs of the poor/Than flatteries of the great.”

Fat chance for any of that to rub off on contemporary leaders.

I’ll try to increase my tolerance and respect for ants next summer when they arrive for the crumbs on my counter. Maybe I’ll heed the advice, not from King Solomon, but from a British man who has 10 pet ant colonies.

He says ants hate the smell of men’s after-shave lotion. Wipe some around your countertops and they’ll stay away. But come to think of it, I’m not too fond of the smell, either.

Sorry ants, beware of heavy falling objects in my kitchen.

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