A small but extremely numerous and widespread insect, living in colonies, and noted in the Bible for its industriousness and instinctive wisdom. (Prov. 6:6-8; 30:24, 25) It is estimated that there are some 15,000 varieties of ants, these insects being found in all parts of the earth with the exception of the polar regions.
The ants are called “a people” [Heb., ʽam] in Proverbs, even as Joel referred to the locusts as “a nation” (Joel 1:6), and this expression is very suitable for these small creatures. While some ant colonies may contain only a few dozen ants, others have a huge population running into the hundreds of thousands, and, although generally of moderate size, the nest or tunneled area may grow until it is as much as an acre in size. Within each colony there are three basic castes: the “queen” or “queens,” the males, and the workers (sexually undeveloped females). Yet, as the proverb states, the ant “has no commander, officer or ruler.” The “queen” is not such in a governmental sense and more fittingly can be called the “mother” ant, for her essential function is that of egg-laying. Whereas a “queen” ant may live as much as fifteen years, the males live only long enough to mate and then die. The worker ants, whose life-span may reach six years, have various duties to perform, such as searching for and gathering in food for the colony, feeding the “queen,” acting as nurses for the larvae, cleaning the nest or digging new chambers as expansion is needed, and defending the nest. Worker ants may be of different sizes and proportions, even within the same colony, in some cases the larger ones acting as “soldiers” in the event of invasion of the nest. Still, despite the fairly precise division of work (which in some colonies is arranged according to the age of the workers and in others according to size) and the relatively complex social organization existent, there is no sign of any superior “officer” or taskmaster.
The ‘wisdom’ of the ants is not the product of intelligent reasoning but results from the instincts with which they are endowed by their Creator. Thus, it has been demonstrated that an ant that comes upon a scented path (made by another ant) that accidentally leads in a circle may continue walking around the path until it dies from exhaustion. The different ant varieties display their ‘instinctive wisdom’ in various ways. While many build their nests in the earth, some ants (“carpenter” ants) excavate tunnels and chambers in wood. Others make leaf houses in trees, the worker ants, in effect, “sewing” the leaves together by taking ant larvae in their jaws and carrying them back and forth so that the silk spun by the larvae (which silk the adult ants cannot produce) binds the edges of the leaves together. Still others build nests of “carton,” a mixture of wood fibers and saliva with, at times, some sand added.
It was once thought that all ants were basically carnivorous, living off other insects and small creatures, and that they did not ‘store’ food for the winter months because of remaining in a torpid state during that season; hence some scholars took issue with the Bible’s reference to the ant as ‘preparing its food and gathering its supplies in the harvest.’ (Prov. 6:8) It is now known, however, that certain ants, living in arid regions, feed almost entirely on seeds. The black ant (Atta barbara) and a brown ant (Atta structor) are two of the most common varieties found in Palestine and are seed feeders that store up a large supply of grain in the summer and make use of it in seasons, including winter, when the obtaining of food becomes difficult. These “harvester” or “agricultural” ants are usually found in the vicinity of threshing floors, where seeds and grain are plentiful. If rain causes dampness to reach the stored seeds, the harvester ants will thereafter carry the grains out into the sun for drying. One type of ant (Messor semirufus) is even known to bite off the germ part of the seed so that it will not germinate while stored.
The ‘instinctive wisdom’ of other ants is also notable in their ways of obtaining food. Many types obtain part of their food from aphids and scale insects, which, when stroked (or “milked”) by the ants, exude a nectarlike fluid called “honeydew” from their abdomens. Some ants maintain “herds” of these aphids, caring for the aphid eggs during the winter and then, when the growing season begins, carrying the aphids to feed on the roots of plants. (The Smithsonian Series, Vol. 5, pp. 172, 173) A type called the “honey ant” solves the problem of storing supplies of honeydew by feeding it to certain worker ants until these become veritable storage tanks, their abdomens swelling up like a pea as they hang stationary from the ceiling of the nest chamber. These storage ants later regurgitate honeydew for the other ants of the community when outside supplies become depleted. The “leaf cutter” or “parasol” ants are gardeners, transporting pieces of leaves down into the nest, chewing and then using them as a garden bed for planting the spores of certain types of fungus. The crop of fungi is carefully tended. If a new nest is formed, the “queen” ant will carry a small quantity of the fungus in her mouth cavity for planting as a starter in the new underground “gardens.”
Thus, a brief investigation of the ant gives force to the exhortation: “Go to the ant, you lazy one; see its ways and become wise.” Not only is their instinctive preparing for the future notable but also their persistence and determination, often carrying or tenaciously dragging objects weighing twice their own weight or more, doing everything possible to fulfill their particular task, and refusing to turn back even though they may fall, slide or roll down some steep precipice. Remarkably cooperative, they keep their nests very clean and show concern for their fellow workers, at times assisting injured or exhausted ants back to the nest.