how do ants in ant colony know what’s their role? Are they trained for these roles (soldiers, farmers, etc.)? Are there ants that go through “career changes” and switch roles?


how do ants in ant colony know what’s their role? Are they trained for these roles (soldiers, farmers, etc.)? Are there ants that go through “career changes” and switch roles?

In: Biology

Some roles are just based on body type. A soldier is never going to become a queen. But others do actually change roles. Ants communicate through chemicals and if an ant in one role goes awhile and doesn’t encounter much of a chemical associated with a role, it can change to that role. So, imagine half the foragers get eaten by an anteater. Other ants slowly notice they’re not encountering enough forager chemicals and might switch roles. That eventually restores the balance.

Ants operate with swarm logic. This means that every ant does what it thinks makes sense to do. So if an ant thinks the best use of its time is to move larva to another section of the nest, it will just start picking them up and leaving a pheromone trail telling other ants what she’s doing. If another ant decides that’s a good idea she may also start carrying larva, or if she thinks it’s a bad idea she may bring the larva back.

This also applies to the roles they take on, with the exception that some species have body types, which have more specific roles like soldier or guard. Lots of ants can freely choose to spend their time digging, scavenging, protecting the queen, tending to larva, or garbage disposal. Every ant decides what seems important and the colony just works.

More importantly….can ants ride sea-doos?

I don’t know about ants but I know a bit about honey bees if that will do? Please delete if not.

Bees have different roles as they mature. Freshly hatched bees clean up, moving debris out of the hive and keeping the combs that contain larvae clean.

Then they become nurse bees, nurturing and feeding the larvae.

Next they move on to processing incoming nectar, making honey and capping the honey combs. Some of these bees also tend to the Queen.

It’s only the older workers that leave the hive and forage. When I say old, they live about four to six weeks.

Ant behavior is a kind of phenomena we call *emergence* or *self-organization*.

A simple example of self-organization is how a school of fish moves. They all seem to move in coordination, without seeming to take orders from any one fish. There’s a simple set of “rules” that each fish follows, though: stay close to the fish next to it, but not *too* close, and swim away from predators. These simple rules, when combined with a group, cause the school of fish to act as one organism. The rules are just instincts which every individual is born with.

Ants work similarly. They have a simple set of “rules” that are instincts for them. They might have a rule that they desire to make columns from dirt, but if there are too many ants already creating columns, then they’ll go outside to collect food. These rules get a bit more complicated in reality, but they’re still pretty simple for each individual.

Besides their instincts, there *are* certain types of ants, such as drones or workers. They each are born with their own instinct to carry out different “rules” for different circumstances. Drones never become workers and workers never become drones. And then there is the queen. The queen ant mostly just lays eggs, and the workers take care of her. She doesn’t give orders or anything.

There are also pheromones that ants release which cause other ants around them to stop doing what they’re doing and take collective action. For instance, if an ant encounters a foreign ant from a different colony, it will release a pheromone that tells nearby ants to come and defend their colony.

It’s easiest to think about ants as finite state machines (FSM). An FSM is a model that defines a number of stages. An ant FSM for example might define the states:

* Eat
* Forage randomly
* Bring food to the colony
* Attack!
* And so on
* Run away / escape
* Many other states

To determine what an FSM or ant will do at any given time, it’ll constantly evaluate all external stimuli to attach importance to each state before selecting one for its current behaviour.

The amazing thing about eusocial insects like ants is that each of them is like a little robot. They have exactly the same states and responses. But those responses work in such a way that many ants together seemingly cooperate in an intelligent manner, even though they don’t really discuss anything or consciously cooperate.

For example:

* Ant A is randomly foraging for food when it finds a discarded cookie. This triggers a state change from foraging to bringing food from the food source to the colony.
* Ant A takes a crumb, heads back to the colony and lays down a scent trail without thinking about it.
* Ant B is foraging randomly when it finds this scent trail. This triggers a decision moment where it weighs the importance of random foraging against the importance of following the scent trail. It’s a weak scent trail so let’s say it’s a 50/50 decision but Ant B’s state changes to following the trail.
* Ant B finds the food and this triggers a state change to grabbing a crumb, heading home and laying down a scent trail. Exactly the same behaviour as Ant A but without realising it Ant B reinforces the scent trail.
* When Ant C finds the scent trail while foraging randomly, it behaves exactly the same as Ant B. It weighs the importance of foraging randomly against the importance of following the scent trail. But the trail is reinforced by Ant B and Ant C is slightly more likely to follow the trail. It does and Ant C grabs some food, heads home and reinforces the trail.

There is zero discussion between ants and each of these ants behaves exactly the same way, like a little robot. But this way a large food source will attract more and more ants who each reinforce the scent trail attracting even more ants. Until the food is gone. A few ants will still follow the scent trail but find no food and as a result, don’t head home while reinforcing the trail. The trail will quickly dissipate and no more ants will be attracted.

A small food source will attract fewer ants because there are fewer opportunities for reinforcing the scent trail before the food is gone. Logistically speaking, any food source will attract an appropriate number of ants to efficiently transport it. Even though no single ant knows what its job is, has a big picture view of what’s happening or is directly communicating to its fellow ants. They all just behave exactly the same and the end result is seemingly intelligent.

Ants do have roles within their society but these roles are the result of different ants placing different emphasis on their canned responses.

For example, in many colonies, only the oldest ants go outside the colony to forage. After all, these are the ants that are already closest to the end of their lifespan and as a result, the most disposable for risking in the dangerous outside world.

Young and old ants have different jobs. But nobody assigned them these jobs. It’s just that a younger ant is more likely to respond place more importance on jobs (or states if you will) inside the colony like digging tunnels or feeding larvae while old ants are more likely to emphasize jobs outside the colony.

Along the same lines, nobody tells ants to go dig a tunnel or make a room. Environmental factors like population density (based on pheromone density) and air quality will encourage individual ants to go dig.

Some ant species do grow physically divergent colony members. For example ant species that have both workers and soldiers (and sometimes many other classes). Nobody tells a soldier to go fight. Soldiers just place more emphasis on defensive or offensive tasks when weighing their states.

Individual ants don’t really know anything. They don’t reason, they don’t think, they don’t maintain dialogues with other ants. They just evolved behaviour that works on an individual level but also achieves very efficient results when all ants behave the same way.