I get lots of newsletters in my inbox and barely have time to do more than scan them, but earlier this week, the headline “Sisterhood of Ants: The Original Social Network” caught my eye, so I clicked through to read the opening paragraph:
As we struggle to understand what it means to be social creatures who meaningfully participate in communities and networks, ants and mice (and the scientists who study them) may be able to tell us something about ourselves.
The article refers to research at the Weizmann Institute and it goes on to say:
The way ants communicate is sophisticated and could have far-reaching implications […] not just for people and how we form social networks, but even for the development of practical applications […].
As a young teenager, I remember being repulsed by John Wyndham‘s story Consider her ways, where a future, female-only, society has been modelled on the regimentation and specialisation of an ant colony, and this blasé reporting of studying and learning from the world of ants worried me somewhat.
I continued browsing fairly randomly trying to get the idea of this apocalyptic future out of my mind. Perhaps it was in the hope of alcoholic comfort that I ended up at the Discover Magazine piece on Twenty things you didn’t know about beer. There, I found more ants.
It seems that scientists have long been considering their ways, and back in the eighteenth century John Lubbock took a look at the behaviour of what Discover describe as “beer-boozy ants”.
If the wandering drunken insects stumbled upon sober comrades from the same nest, they were carefully carried back home to sleep it off.
Maybe, then, ants are not quite such bad role-models as I feared. Certainly they compare favourably with bees, according to the QI website:
Bees who are drunk from fermented nectar have many more flying accidents than sober ones and can sometimes forget how to get back to their hive, dying as a result. Even if they make it back to the hive they can be rounded on by other bees who punish the drunken bee by chewing off its legs.
I can only imagine the angry sister-bees then doing a little waggle dance that translates roughly as, “That’ll teach you to get legless when you should be working”.