Ants – small brains, formidable organisation!

This may be the most chilling organisational behaviour post you read this week. For a change, the stars of the show are not humans; they’re ants.

I’ve been fascinated by ants ever since I was a kid. My friends and I spent many a happy hour stirring up ants’ nests during the long summer holidays, just to see what they did.

Along with humans, ants are among the few creatures that farm, herd other animals and build cities. On the darker side, they also wage war and take slaves. Last week, I came across a fascinating blog by ant experts. This post tells the story of a battle between two ants’ nests; an attack by the aggressive, blood-red coloured Formica Sanguinea on another species, the Rufa, or wood ants.

Two things interested me about this, firstly the level of organisation and, secondly, the Sanguinea’s use of ants from previously enslaved nests as auxiliaries, in the same way that the Huns and Romans bolstered their armies with troops from conquered tribes.

The sanguinea army came out as a thick column and took more than an hour to march out of the garden! I counted more than 16,000 ants and large numbers of rufa (25%) accompanied the blood reds.

The sanguinea ended up totally surrounding the rufa nest, which is the only time I’ve known them to do this, and butchered all of the defenders including all the Queens.

The sanguinea took two whole days to empty the nest of all its treasure and when I took stock, the carnage was unbelievable. Large balls of dead wood ants and blood red ants were rolled up together in the alley with the wood ant dead outnumbering the attackers by approximately 5 to 1 (presumably some of these were allies of the sanguinea).

It brings to mind the treatment of vanquished cities in Central Asia by Genghis Khan’s warriors,

But wait until you read this; the story of a slave raid:

The F. sanguinea carried out a typical raid on this nest and sent a large contingent to attack the nest on the opposite side to their own position. They also sent a very large blockading force and spread these out in the grass in the direct line between them and the F. rufa nest. None of the latter insects attacked the F. rufa so, as far as the defenders were concerned, the F. sanguinea were attacking from the rear only. Clever or what?

After about an hour of constant attack, the F. rufa finally broke and the top of the nest ‘exploded’ with fleeing ants. In other words it went up like a volcano as thousands of rufa blasted leaf litter out of their way in their haste to get clear. The nest literally lost its shape!

Hordes of rufa escaped with pupae, trying to escape the pursuing sanguinea. Most fled straight into the many blockading sanguinea. The rufa lost most of their brood in the raid but the majority of the workers and all of the Queens survived the attack. These vacated the garden and made a home in an older nest.

Did you see that? The attacking ants prepared an ambush and the defenders, in their desperation to escape the attack on their nest, walked right into it.

If the stories above weren’t creepy enough for you, read about the remarkable Polyergus. (Or if you’re feeling really brave watch this video.) So specialised are these ants that they are incapable of finding their own food. They exist only as a warrior caste and must be fed and cared for by enslaved workers from other species. (Feudalism anyone?) Their queens establish themselves by invading the nests of other species and, over a period of weeks, systematically hunting down and killing all the existing queens. Once the slaves begin to die off, the polyergus workers organise another raid and, with clinical efficiency, pick a neighbouring nest clean to provide a new generation of serfs.

How do ants organise with this level of sophistication? No-one is really sure. They have tiny brains so are presumably incapable of conscious organisation. As far as scientists can tell, there is no ant general or council of senior soldiers that makes a plan. Whether it is building an underground city with a ventilation system, farming fungus, or organising a slave raid, ants just seem to know what to do.

Scientists describe ant colonies as superorganisms, collections of organisms which appear to behave as a single one. They seem to work by collective intelligence or swarm theory, as this National Geographic piece notes:

No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do…But the bottom line, says Iain Couzin, a biologist at Oxford and Princeton Universities, is that no leadership is required. “Even complex behavior may be coordinated by relatively simple interactions.”

So far, no-one has worked out how ants do this but there is some interest in applying the findings of research on ants to organisations. It’s to be expected really. How often do managers wish that people would just get on and do stuff? Let’s be honest, this is behind much of the work on organisational culture, employee engagement, empowerment, corporate visions and other hearts-and-minds initiatives. Wouldn’t it be great if people somehow just did the right things without needing to be told what to do and monitored afterwards? CEOs would give a lot for just a bit of what an ant colony has.

So corporations have started teaming up with those who study ant behaviour.

Working with the Bios Group (now NuTech Solutions), a firm that specialized in artificial intelligence, Air Liquide developed a computer model based on algorithms inspired by the foraging behavior of Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), a species that deposits chemical substances called pheromones.

“When these ants bring food back to the nest, they lay a pheromone trail that tells other ants to go get more food,” Harper explains. “The pheromone trail gets reinforced every time an ant goes out and comes back, kind of like when you wear a trail in the forest to collect wood. So we developed a program that sends out billions of software ants to find out where the pheromone trails are strongest for our truck routes.”

Ants had evolved an efficient method to find the best routes in their neighborhoods. Why not follow their example? So Air Liquide combined the ant approach with other artificial intelligence techniques to consider every permutation of plant scheduling, weather, and truck routing—millions of possible decisions and outcomes a day. Every night, forecasts of customer demand and manufacturing costs are fed into the model.

“It takes four hours to run, even with the biggest computers we have,” Harper says. “But at six o’clock every morning we get a solution that says how we’re going to manage our day.”

For truck drivers, the new system took some getting used to. Instead of delivering gas from the plant closest to a customer, as they used to do, drivers were now asked to pick up shipments from whichever plant was making gas at the lowest delivered price, even if it was farther away.

“You want me to drive a hundred miles? To the drivers, it wasn’t intuitive,” Harper says. But for the company, the savings have been impressive. “It’s huge. It’s actually huge.”

Trust the truck drivers to mess it up just when things were going so well. They moaned about having to drive further. Bet you’d never hear ants whinging like that.

Others have tried imitating ants too:

In Italy and Switzerland, fleets of trucks carrying milk and dairy products, heating oil, and groceries all use ant-foraging rules to find the best routes for deliveries. In England and France, telephone companies have made calls go through faster on their networks by programming messages to deposit virtual pheromones at switching stations, just as ants leave signals for other ants to show them the best trails.

I’d be interested to know more about these, if anyone happens to know who the companies are.

Political groups have been getting ant-like:

That’s the wonderful appeal of swarm intelligence. Whether we’re talking about ants, bees, pigeons, or caribou, the ingredients of smart group behavior—decentralized control, response to local cues, simple rules of thumb—add up to a shrewd strategy to cope with complexity.

Social and political groups have already adopted crude swarm tactics. During mass protests eight years ago in Seattle, anti-globalization activists used mobile communications devices to spread news quickly about police movements, turning an otherwise unruly crowd into a “smart mob” that was able to disperse and re-form like a school of fish.

And what about last year’s rioters? Could it be that they understood swarm theory before our big corporations did?

Nevertheless, I’m still sceptical. I can see how swarm theory works for organising protests or for aggregating knowledge, as Wikipedia has done. Over a short time, spontaneous-looking events can be organised by swarming. But how far this can work for the ongoing running of complex organisations is less clear. The trouble with human beings is that, even when they are broadly committed to an organisation’s aims, they still have their own personal interests and agendas. You see this even in the most dedicated political groups – we may all want a revolution but I want it to be done my way and led by me. It is these competing interests which are the cause of much of what we call corporate politicking and which mean some humans will always try to nudge the swarm in the direction they want it to go. Humans are just too awkward to be ant-like.

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10 Responses to Ants – small brains, formidable organisation!

  1. Pingback: Ants – small brains, formidable organisation! - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Doug Shaw says:

    Great stuff! You quote ‘No ant sees the big picture. No ant tells any other ant what to do…But the bottom line, says Iain Couzin, a biologist at Oxford and Princeton Universities, is that no leadership is required.’

    Then you suggest that ‘CEOs would give a lot for just a bit of what an ant colony has.’

    I put it to you that if we really can learn from the ants then the first thing to do is sack/kill/eat the board. The CEO is history once we tap the ant mentality, mua ha haaaa!

  3. John D says:

    We ourselves – just as human beings – are a very good example of a self-organising organism. The explanation for the way in which ants organise is that it is based on developing a collective “mind” – based on inputs of smells and other signals – which enables them to operate as a self-organising collective organisation. Gene Roddenberry developed a similar theme for more sentient beings in Star Trek when he created the species Borg, a group of individuals all connected to one another through possession of a collective mind but one developed beyond the capacity of ants, of course. Human beings are unique, of course, in that they can choose to become part of a collective group – or not. For myself, I have to admit I am almost certainly too individualistic to ever submerge my own identity within the confines of any collective consciousness. I suspect most human beings are like this too. The increase in material wealth of all societies also mitigates against the abandonment of individual consciousness within a collective consciousness. This has previously been attempted within totalitarian societies but has signally failed to work to date – no doubt, to the relief of individualists like myself and others.
    Organisational experts would be better off shifting their perception away from concepts involving a collective consciousness towards a concept embracing how to advance individual consciousness within a socially responsible context, i.e. developing organisational efficiency within a framework which embraces true empathy and sympathy, which can only benefit all involved – workers, management, customers and the wider society. The current banking scandals reveal how the opposite effect can be achieved when individualist goals are pursued to a degree of ruthlessness and selfishness which ultimately acts against the better interests of all involved.

  4. “Ants are just like human societies” is, you’ll not be surprised to hear, a political analogy. The parallels highlighted usually concern social features deemed admirable, even if no longer politically acceptable (e.g. slavery), thus subservience to a common goal, self-sacrifice, hierarchy and functional specialisation (workers, soldiers, breeders). The language and metaphors speak of an earlier, simpler human age: colonies, herding, armies, slaves, a warrior caste and queens.

    When science started to systematically analyse ant colonies (myrmecology) in the late 19th century, it reached for current human parallels, such as monarchy and empire, but also industrial society: the division of labour, class rigidity, the necessity of work. In the first half of the 20th century, the ant metaphor was used across the political spectrum. Unity or purpose, self-sacrifice and defence against the alien were emphasised by the right, while the left saw parallels with working class consciousness, solidarity, organised labour etc. In the second half of the century, greater focus was placed on altruism and sociality (e.g. E O Wilson and sociobiology).

    In recent decades, the ant metaphor has reversed its polarity, so to speak: “human systems are just like ants”. This has occured with the growth of systems theory, particularly in respect of self-organising systems. We now have such concepts as “ant programming”, not to mention the “hive mind”.

    The commercial tales you quote are examples of PR liberally spiced with techno-nonsense. “Ant foraging rules” are just simple logic rules, dressed up as ant-like in order to imply they’re cutting-edge. Working out the best route for a truck based on experiential data is a concept that has been around for over half a century and is the basis of all modern packet-switching networks (e.g. the Internet).

    Re: “So we developed a program that sends out billions of software ants to find out where the pheromone trails are strongest for our truck routes”. No they didn’t. Even for a large business like Air Liquide, there aren’t a billion operating variables to manage, so most of those “ants” are going nowhere. “It takes four hours to run, even with the biggest computers we have”. That’s one massively inefficient piece of code you’ve got there, fella. You’ll not sell that to hedge fund.

    As you say, we should be sceptical, and not just because the applicability of self-organising or eusocial models to the world of work is precisely nil. “Swarm theory”, like “flash-mobbing”, is what nice, well-educated people do. When the chavs start swarming, we call it “mob rule”.

  5. Indy Neogy says:

    FATE has done a good job of bringing required scepticism to the piece.

    I’d add that the missing unit of analysis for all these “ant problems” might be found in the Cynefin concept from Dave Snowden. Ants and ant algorithms provide impressive solutions to certain kinds of problems. I’d suggest (although I haven’t analysed it) that these largely look like they sit in the “complicated” domain. Which is why we have success in replicating the ants using computers. The big problems for humans and corporations however, sit in the “complex” domain. We actually far outperform ants on “complicated” problems – so much so that we’re now scratching our heads as to why we’re not as good at “complex” ones.

    The dirty secret of swarm approaches is that they rely on numbers of “agents” (or in this case – ants) – they are not particularly efficient in themselves.

    The military tactics look more impressive, but there are plenty of examples of both parasitical and ambush tactics throughout the animal world. Given their presence across a wide range of brain sizes, there would seem to be something other than pure problem solving at work.

    I don’t mean to suggest that humans are not more awkward, political, etc. than ants. But I think I have to strongly suggest that it’s fallacious to say that means that the ants are outperforming us.

  6. ThinkPurpose says:

    The last paragraph about humans not being as “one-minded” as ants and possess their own agenda in any organisation. I think it’s important to remember is that a nest of ants are all related. Most of the worker ants are sterile clone sisters. I am not related to anybody in my organisation, they sit next to me by accident, it could be anybody.
    Apparently about 90% of US businesses are family owned and ran, so a substantial majority of business are ran by people related to each other. It doesn’t mean however that 90% of employees are related to each other, as family businesses could be husband and wife teams or vast empires like Walmarts where only a tiny amount of the staff are related.
    Ultimately, like most of the animals reading this page, I am a primate, and history shows we don’t get along that well even with related primates.

  7. Steve Williams says:

    It was the BT Plc boffins at their research labs in Martlesham Heath in the UK that designed ant pheromone programs. I saw them demonstrated at least 15 years ago. Fascinating stuff.

  8. Paco Jariego says:

    Reblogged this on Mind the Post and commented:
    “The trouble with human beings is that, even when they are broadly committed to an organisation’s aims, they still have their own personal interests and agendas”

  9. Dipper says:

    The big difference between ants and humans is that ants don’t sit around discussing what they can learn from humans.

  10. vincelammas says:

    Hi Rick,

    It has taken me a lot longer than I expected to write the article I promised when I read your piece. However, its now done and tries to bring your ant colony analogy into perspective with the self-organising concepts that arise from some very interesting areas of management thinking.

    I dont think its true the applicability of self-organising to the world of work is “precisely nil” but there are complicating factors that make people ore challenging (and less self-sacrificing) than ants.

    I also dont agree that political behaviour is necessarily bad or destructive … though it can be. It is always time-consuming and awkward or inconvenient for managers who have to handle disagreement. But that’s part of the territory with working alongside human beings, not robots.

    Indy Neogy’s reference to Dave Snowden systems-thinking and the Cynefin sense-making framework are relevant here though there are many more writers and thinkers working in this area than most people are aware of.

    Certain kinds of operation are perhaps more suited than others to self-direction brings though its the approach to people and management that is a bigger shaper here. It’s interesting to consider we all think we are well placed to organise and manage our own work without too much interference from a boss though we might think others are less capable than us of the same level autonomy … in the same way everyone thinks they are above average.

    I’d be interested to know what you think.


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