The ant swarm is a model of efficiency

According to Deborah, no individual ant is smart but ant colonies are. Deborah M Gordon is a biologist and a Professor at Stanford University.  Deborah studies swarming ants and their behavior.

Ants have evolved into flexible eco-system for 140 million years of their evolution. They may look disorganized but their way of doing things enables them to achieve tasks like building bridges, highways, elaborate nests and staging raids. They accomplish all of this without any leadership, a blueprint or even a sense of mission.

The ant swarm is a model of efficiency and everything happens in an orderly pattern. The ants do not follow a master plan and yet everything happens just fine. The ants respond to changes in their environment in a quick and effective manner. If patroller ants discover food, the forager ants venture out to collect it. If the nest is damaged by the morning storm, a group of maintenance worker ants will start to repair it. If more workers are needed, even the young ones will start to pitch in to do the maintenance. Depending on whether it is an opportunity or threat the colony as a whole decides how many workers are needed and adjust resources accordingly.

There are no bosses, supervisors or leaders. The queen ant lays only eggs and does not exercise authority or give commands. The patroller ants are the first to venture out from the colony in search of food but they do take orders from a leader. When the maintenance workers repair a tunnel, they do not follow any blueprints. None of the ants ever memorizes the mission statement nor do they see the big picture. The ants do not understand the purpose of their own labor, why they need to complete the job and how their job fits into the entire colony. Nevertheless, they just do it.

A forager ant’s decision to venture out to collect food does not depend on receiving instruction from the patroller ant nor does it figure out on its own. The forager ants follow a simple thumb rule. It depends on the right number and the rate at which the patroller ants return to the nest. If it meets the number and the rate, the forager ants venture out otherwise they stay put. As Deborah says, ‘nobody is deciding whether it is a good day or not to forage’. Deborah says ‘ the collective is, but no particular ant is’.

The self-organizing swarm

The key to understanding this intriguing and yet successful behavior of swarming ants lies in understanding ‘self –organization’. The patterns and behaviors in self-organization do not come on their own but rather from bottom up resulting from the local individual interactions of many component parts.

An ant swarm is self-organizing. An ant goes through its day by merely responding to the changes in the environment around it, whatever happens to it and to the other ants. By doing so, it passes ‘Local knowledge’ to other ants. It then affects the other ants and creates a ripple effect through the colony. ‘No ant understands its own decision’ says Gordon. But ‘each ants decision is linked to another ant’s decision and the whole colony or the swarm changes’.

Self –organisation works under three basic mechanisms. Decentralized control, distributed problem solving and multiple interactions.