Ants, Bees, Genomes & Evolution @ Queen Mary University London

Fire ants? What's the point??

Red Fire Ants are natives of South America where they occupy an ecologic niche, under pressure of predators and competitors. In other places, such as the southern United States or Australia, fire ants are considered an invasive species: given almost no predators or competitors, their proliferation is unlimited. They have become a considerable agricultural and thus economic pest as well as a significant health hazard.

Understanding these guys could contribute to solving these issues. It might also help understand how a useful social insect, the honey bee, works. We could get better honey!

Other issues which could be of interest for ants as well as generally concerning how life and evolution work include:

  • Eggs laid by a queen are practically identical. How does the environment (temperature variations…) and handling (by nurses) determine that a larvae will become a queen while another will become a worker? Which worker will become a soldier? a nurse? a scout?

  • A queen can live a long time - maybe 20 or 40 years. But a worker’s life lasts only one or two years. And a male only one or two weeks. And yet they carry identical genetic information. Could we also live longer?

  • How do ants form alliances with other colonies? How do they use slavery, propaganda, deception, appeasement, spying? How does an individual know what it should do and communicate the result?

  • To which extent is it possible to use ideas from social insects to solve our problems? A large number of cooperating small interchangeable robots might solve certain issues better than one big robot…

Lastly, ants appear to form the ideal communist society:

“In our view, the competitive edge that led to the rise of the ants as a world-dominant group is their highly developed, self-sacrificial colonial existence. It would appear that socialism really works under some circumstances. Karl Marx just had the wrong species.” - The Journey to the Ants, Holldobler and Wilson

December 9, 2004