The façade isn’t impressive. You may not see Greek letters out front or any other obvious signs, but I’m here to tell ya, an anthill is a sorority. One of the first, in fact.
The scene is totally social, but if you’re looking for date parties and keggers and late-night pillow fights you’ll probably want to rush another house. No...ants tend to be the stereotypic type-A Big Bang Theory chemistry majors who are all over all-work-and-no-play. They prefer to live in a well-organized, highly hierarchical community of selfless, almost exclusively asexual (and sterile) females focused primarily on helping their queen and their sisters succeed.
And it’s hard to see how they could be any more successful. Formicidae sisters — 12,500 classified chapters (a.k.a. species) strong — have been doin’ it for themselves for approximately 35 million years and counting. And killin’ it, I might add. According to world-renowned myrmecologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson, true social insects dominate, comprising 75 percent of the world’s insect biomass. Clearly, there’s more than hype to those heartfelt testimonials about the benefits of a supportive community that has one another’s back.
Communication skills are SO important in a sorority house that may have 10,000+ BFFs cohabitating. But OMG, cell reception inside the hive bites!! No texting. No tweets. How’s a gal supposed to stay connected?
Luckily, the right signature scent says more than words alone ever could. Pheromones are known for their ability to attract a date, but they have many other useful applications (and, let’s face it, dating is not a high priority for this crowd). For example, pheromones are your go-to social media when you want to: tell everyone about the great new farmers market you found; sound the alarm when danger looms; blackball a rival; intimidate your housemates and then brainwash them into liking you; or spread propaganda to start fights between the members of rival houses. Ants even transfer information via pheromones mixed into what they eat and drink — believe me, these girls have swallowed the “better living through chemistry” Kool-Aid.
In many ant sororities, members take turns rotating through each of the community service duties necessary to keep things running smoothly, including: midwifery, childcare, housekeeping, grocery shopping, food preparation and storage, gardening (some ant species grow their own food), caring for livestock (some species “milk” aphids and other insects that secrete a sweet liquid called honeydew). Some chapters take a different approach, assigning chores based on size and talent. Hey, wuteva works, girlfriend.
So…what about the guys, you ask? Males (drones) are basically trust fund kids who allow their sister-nannies to dote and cosset and provide for their every need until they reach adulthood and leave the house for the first, and only, time in their life. Outside, they discover men have one, and only one, very short-term purpose in this gynocentric world — to become a baby-daddy for some future queen with a ticking biological clock.
Depending on the species, a new queen may have a dozen consorts or only one.* She doesn’t care about the size of his bank account, where he went to school or whether he’s in touch with his inner-female. She does, however, care about his bloodline: good looks, good moves and any other characteristic that suggests genetic fitness will seal the deal. She’s not in it for the long-term. Once the nuptial flight hook-up is over so is the honeymoon. Her lovers are dead to her. Literally. Hopefully, they got what they wanted out of the encounter, because she sure did — her own personal sperm-bank, which she’ll use to selectively fertilize future eggs. Time to settle down and start pushing out babies!
We’re talking, like, lots of babies. Hundreds, thousands, even hundreds of thousands, over the course of the queen’s reign, which may last as long as 20 to 30 years. With the exception of an occasional clutch of short-lived drones who will quickly disperse from the nest along with the next generation of queens, each sorority sister is also a biological sister of every other member.
Shared purpose and DNA make for a powerful bond. The mom-queen has her hands full procreating, so big sisters take responsibility for the development of their siblings, carefully feeding and grooming and gently moving the young ones around so they stay at just the right temperature for optimal development. It’s quite touching to watch.
But don’t be misled. All that TLC evaporates when an ant leaves the security of the nest for an assignment defending the perimeter. If attacked, she’ll use every tool at her disposal, including her familiarity with the periodic table. She may repel invaders by spraying them with formic acid or by stinging them with piperidine alkaloids. Maybe she’ll deliver acetophenones and other immobilizing cocktails with a ferocious and lightning-fast bite. How fast? The trap-jaw ant (Odontomachus spp.) has mandibles that snap shut faster than any other predatory appendages found in the animal kingdom (126 to 230 kmh/78 to 143 mph).
Inside the anthill, life is all about cooperation and helping one another. Outside the anthill is another story. This isn’t a friendly Panhellenic competition. It’s war — no-holds-barred, fight-like-a-girl chemical warfare combined with hand-to-hand combat.
Because sistahs play for keeps.
Dr. Kieran Lindsey loves looking for wild things in all the wrong places…so she became an urban wildlife biologist. She also has way too much fun as the official Animal-Vehicle Biologist for NPR’s “Car Talk.” Read her blog at www.nextdoornature.org. Contact her at email@example.com.
Illustration by Matt Collins