Task Partitioning in Ant Colonies

Task Partitioning in Ant Colonies

The capacity of individuals within an insect colony to divide their labor for the overall benefit of the whole group highlights an outstanding design feature seen in all species of social insects (such as ants and bees). Each of these tiny creatures appears to be pre-programmed to focus all their energies on achieving just one of the many tasks necessary for the survival of the colony. Where this “software” lays within the organism no scientist yet knows. More humbling still, this software appears to be more sophisticated than the best computer programs written by human engineers. Evidently, the Creator of social insects is a lot more knowledgeable and intelligent than we human beings.

Now, two biologists, one from the University of New Orleans and the other from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, have discovered that for Atta colombica, a species of leaf-cutting ants, the ensemble of different software programs manifested in each ant making up the colony is designed for optimal task-partitioning among the individuals.1

The researchers found the forager ants capable of a much higher efficiency of cutting and delivering leaf tissue to nest workers than what the ants actually cut and delivered. Instead, the foragers cut the leaves into smaller portions and, consequently, delivered less leaf tissue to the colony. The job of the nest workers was to distribute, clean, shred, and implant the tissue in fungal gardens. By delivering a sub-maximal amount of leaf tissue to the colony’s nest the forager ants optimized the productivity of the nest workers.

This particular biological research study showed that not only is the software for each of the worker castes in Atta colombica amazingly designed, but that an even higher order of design exists in the ensemble of software programs. The design at both levels brings about the optimal productivity for the species.

Consider a factory assembly line. On the production floor each machine is designed to perform a particular function. The ensemble of machines are geographically placed and organized for maximal productivity. Likewise, the delivery of raw materials to the factory, the discharge of waste, and the export of product are all optimized for maximum throughput.

A factory observer recognizes that it takes careful, intelligent planning, design, and organization to make a successful, efficient factory. Similarly, a careful observer of nature’s insect communities can recognize that it takes a very intelligent and powerful Creator to plan, design, and organize both the hardware (ant bodies) and software (ant instincts) for a successful, efficient ant colony.

  1. Martin Burd and Jerome J. Howard, “Optimality in a Partitioned Task Performed by Social Insects,” Biology Letters 4 (December 23, 2008): 627-29.