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January 20, 2019

What We Can Learn From Ants

There are at least 650 species of ants in Kenya, none of which carry cell phones. Probably you are familiar with just two or three, the brown and black ants and in a class of their own the dreaded safari ants. Casual observation of ants gives an impression that they are orderly, organised and walk in a straight line.

This is observation from a great height ant wise. Move closer to the ground and you will see that they do not actually move in straight line but zig and zag searching for food.

Ants feed mainly on sugary foods, oily seeds and honeydew from aphid infested plants. Once they identify a food source they pick a piece and rush back with it to the nest.

So at any one time along one path there will be one group of ants scurrying back to the nest carrying food, another following the trail created by the food carrying group and a third group sourcing for more food. This is not logical. You would expect that having discovered a source of food, they would create a straight line path that is the shortest distance to the nest but they do not.

Perhaps one reason is that ants do not really talk aloud or at least if they do we do not hear them. Instead they communicate by the use of pheromones and behave according to a set of rules.

Pheromones are chemical substances produced by an animal, especially a mammal or an insect, which affects the behaviour or physiology of others of its own species.

Since ants live mostly on the ground they are able to leave pheromone trails on the soil, which other ants pick up on and follow. They use their antennae to pick up on the trail and so if they were to deviate from the path created initially by the first ant then chaos might ensue with different trails having the same label of food source.

In that behaviour you can see a number of rules that guide the ants’ use of pheromones. The first is that when searching for food walk randomly while leaving a trail of pheromones.

If (remember you are an ant) walking without food follow pheromone trail and lay pheromone. When you find food follow pheromone trail in reverse while laying more pheromone.

On arriving home drop food and repeat process. So at all times the ant is communicating where it has been and the route where there is plenty of food eventually ends up with a thick aroma of ant pheromone making life easy for everyone.

At a superficial level, humans are similar to ants. Look at any path from a distance and you will see that it zigzags avoiding every little obstacle. Our roads too other than a couple of stretches of Ngong Road and Nairobi-Mombasa highway that are straight are roads built with Africans in mind.

Travelling in a straight line transport wise the most efficient is an alien concept. Just like ants, humans too secrete pheromones. Human beings have two types of sweat glands called eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands are found all over the body and sweat directly onto the surface of the skin, cooling it in the process.

Appocrine glands however develop together with hair follicles. So they are found in the armpits, the groin and ear canals. The secretion from the apocrine gland is a milky fluid, which combined with bacteria found in the skin, gives a person their body odour. Under conditions of stress, when people are nervous, or very emotional the body odour changes.

Unfortunately people spend a considerable fortune on perfume, deodorant and in the case of females showering many times a day to mask the natural body smell. As such unless a stressful event has just occurred human pheromones are not a very useful guide in human interactions. So to help guide our behaviour we have to rely on a different set of rules of regulations.

Human rules and regulations that govern behaviour rely mainly on visual sight. So good manners have to be exhibited for everyone to see rather than wait to use the other senses.

By the time you smell that someone has not behaved well for example passing urine or stool where they should not it is too late to do something about it and if you are trying to prevent disease then transmission has probably occurred. Bad manners in society is not just bad in itself, it has implications for the health of everyone.

Today Kenya is about 23 per cent urbanised, excluding all the people who live along the major roads in the republic. To live side by side with little sanitation, unreliable power in poor housing structures is to breed disease.

Good manners, those rules that help people respect each other becomes ever more important; after all, unlike ants we have the capacity to think straight.

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