28 April 2009

Idler Ants

Samuel Johnson, The Idler 88, "Idleness", 18 November 1758:
But Idleness predominates in many lives where it is not suspected; for being a vice which terminates in itself, it may be enjoyed without injury to others; and is therefore not watched like Fraud, which endangers property, or like Pride, which naturally seeks its gratifications in another's inferiority. Idleness is a silent and peaceful quality, that neither raises envy by ostentation, nor hatred by opposition; and therefore no body is busy to censure or detect it.
The New York Times, "To Fathom a Colony’s Talk and Toil, Studying Insects One by One", 27 April 2009:

Dr. Dornhaus is breaking new ground in her studies of whether the efficiency of ant society, based on a division of labor among ant specialists, is important to their success. To do that, she said, “I briefly anesthetized 1,200 ants, one by one, and painted them using a single wire-size brush, with model airplane paint — Rally Green, Racing Red, Daytona Yellow.”

After recording their behavior with two video cameras aiming down on an insect-size stage, she analyzed 300 hours of videotape of the ants in action. She discovered behavior more worthy of Aesop’s grasshopper than the proverbial industrious ants.

“The specialists aren’t necessarily good at their jobs,” she said. “And the other ants don’t seem to recognize their lack of ability.”

Dr. Dornhaus found that fast ants took one to five minutes to perform a task — collecting a piece of food, fetching a sand-grain stone to build a wall, transporting a brood item — while slow ants took more than an hour, and sometimes two. And she discovered that about 50 percent of the other ants do not do any work at all. In fact, small colonies may sometimes rely on a single hyperactive overachiever.

(via Jenny Davidson)

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