The Debunker: Are Ants Hard Workers?

by Ken Jennings

Ah, June. The bees are buzzing, the crickets are chirping, the fireflies are glowing, and the June bugs are—doing whatever June bugs do, I guess? It's their month. In the United Kingdom, the connection between summer and the insect kingdom has been formalized by turning the last week of June into National Insect Week. We're also celebrating our six-legged friends all month, and we've called in Ken Jennings (not an insect, but at least a WASP) as a guest expert. He tells us that our insect knowledge has a few bugs.

The Debunker: Are Ants Hard Workers?

Every time you see an ant, it always looks like it has someplace to be, right? Ants are the head-down, earbuds-in-ear, man-on-a-mission fast-walkers of the insect kingdom. Ants are in a hurry. When Aesop wanted an industrious animal for his fable about provident hard work, he chose the ant as his protagonist, the one who tells off the hungry, lazy grasshopper. Get a job, grasshopper!

work hard

Natural historians have observed for millennia that ants divide up the work of their colonies with an almost military sense of duty and organization. "In their labors, what ardor they display, what wondrous carefulness!" wrote Pliny the Elder almost two thousand years ago. "We see ever the very stones worn away by their footsteps. . . . Let no one be in doubt, then, how much assiduity and application, even in the very humblest of objects, can upon every occasion effect!" Maybe he got a bit carried away with his ant-kissing-up, but modern science has confirmed the fact that ant colonies are incredibly complex and well-ordered systems, with different worker ants specializing in tasks from food-gathering to tunnel-building to care of young.

But #NotAllAnts! A 2015 study by entomologists at the University of Arizona tracked five colonies' worth of ants individually, by marking them with tiny dots of paint. Just 2.6 percent of the ants were working every single time they were observed. The majority, almost 72 percent, were inactive more than half the time, and fully 25 percent of the colony was never seen working! This challenges the old assumption that all ants work in diligent shifts, and suggests that some ants stay out of the workforce entirely. Are they being held in reserve for emergency tasks? Too young? Too old? Constantly promising the queen that they'll look for a job tomorrow, jeeeez Mom? We ant-icipate further discoveries.

Quick Quiz: What Trojan War hero led a troop of ant-men called Myrmidons?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.