Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/January 1881/Lubbock on Insect Conservatism


SIR JOHN LUBBOCK will certainly earn the praise of accumulating more facts upon which we may found reasonable inferences as to the intellectual character of the ant, than all his acute predecessors in the same field put together. And his latest published observations on the subject, communicated to the Linnæan Society, and printed in their "Transactions," contain some of his most interesting results. These results we should describe generally as showing that the ants display, first, a preternaturally keen sense of consanguinity; next, a good deal of that narrow conservatism which is so often the result of too much belief in the family and too little receptivity for the ideas of the external world; in the third place, a thorough distrust of revolution, so that they are almost equally afraid of establishing a new dynasty and of destroying an old one; and, finally, a good deal of the skepticism which narrow conservatism inevitably engenders toward all suggestions not fitting easily into the established grooves. The ant, it is evident, does not, like Lord Beaconsfield, believe mainly in race, but, on the contrary, like the English squire, "acred up to his lips, consoled up to his chin," believes chiefly in family, and, we must add, has shown much more amazing instincts than any English squire in discriminating the progeny of one group of families from the progeny of another. That a strange ant, though of the same species, put into any nest, will be at once attacked and killed. Sir John Lubbock has proved again and again. Like the English rustic who, on assuring himself that a man is a stranger to the district, immediately proposes to "'eave' alf a brick at him," the ants pay no regard to species at all, if they find an ant who can not trace his descent to their own nest intruding upon it. They make a principle of hostility to aliens, drawing no distinction between aliens of their own species and aliens of another species. But the remarkable thing appears to be their special instinct for identifying the descendants of their own tribe. Sir John Lubbock separated into two parts, in February, 1879, a nest of ants which contained two queens, giving about the same number of ants and one queen to each. In February the nest contains neither young nor eggs, so that the division was made before the earliest stage of being for the next generation began. In April both queens began to lay eggs. In July, Sir John Lubbock took a lot of pupæ from each division, and placed each lot on a separate glass, with attendants from the same division of the nest. At the end of August he took four previously marked ants from the pupæ bred in one division and put them into the second division, and one previously marked ant from the pupae bred in the second division and put it into the first; in both cases the ants, which could never have been seen in any stage of their life by any of the ants in that division, were welcomed as friends, cleared of Sir John's paint, and accepted as members of the family. The same thing happened again and again. But whenever a stranger was introduced after the same fashion, it was immediately attacked and destroyed. This confirmed still more remarkably a series of less crucial experiments formerly made by Sir John Lubbock on the same subject. By some inscrutable sense or other, the ants, it is clear, know the descendants—at least in the first degree—of those which have once belonged to their own nest, even though they were neither born nor thought of when their parents left the nest. So much for the profound instinct of consanguinity in the ant, as well as for the unconquerable hostility they show to those ants who are not connected with them, within recognizable degrees at least, by blood.

But now as to the intense political conservatism which this bigoted sort of family feeling produces. Sir John Lubbock has discovered, it appears, that once let an ants' nest get accustomed to living without a queen—once let it organize democratic institutions—and nothing will induce it to admit a queen for the future. Queens introduced into queenless nests were always ruthlessly killed, even though-in one case Sir John exhibited the queen for three days to the ant-democracy in a wire cage which protected her from them, in order to accustom them to the sight of royalty. The moment the protecting wire was removed, the queen was attacked and slain, just as if she had been an ordinary alien. Sir John, however, was occasionally able, by the help of a little intrigue—of the Marshal MacMahon kind, but more successful—to obtain a throne for a wandering queen. The way he managed was this: He took a few ants from their nest, and put them, in that disorganized state, with a strange queen. The ants were then in a timorous and diffident mood. They had no fixed institutions to fall back upon. They felt wanderers in the world. And, feeling this, they did not attack the queen, but rather regarded her as the nucleus of a possible organization. By thus gradually adding a few ants at a time to a disorganized mob which had accepted the queen as the starting-point for a new polity, "I succeeded," says Sir John Lubbock, "in securing the throne for her." But this success speaks as much for the conservatism of the ants as the former unanimous rejection of the queen by an organized community. They repudiated a queen when they knew that their institutions were in working order without her. They accepted her, when they felt at sea and in peril of anarchy, as the germ of a new system. It was a timid conservatism which dictated their policy in each case. In the former, they rejected with horror the prospect of a change of constitution; in the latter, they accepted, not, perhaps, without eagerness, the prospect of a more rapid political development than, without any ready-made leader, they could have counted upon. For the ants, then, the throne was, as M. Thiers said of a republic, under dissimilar circumstances, the constitution "which divided them least."

And it is to be inferred, we think, that the languid skepticism which is one of the commonest causes or effects—it is difficult to say which—of that intense timidity which is so often connected with conservatism, affects these wonderful little creatures also. Sir John shows us most satisfactorily that the ants understand each other—that when an ant goes back from a bit of food which she is unable by her own strength to stir, she can and does communicate in some way to her fellow-ants the need of help. They clearly understand her message, and they prepare to assist her; but they have, it appears, no real confidence in her information. What they see with their own eyes fills them with the utmost eagerness, but what they learn from others they do not more than half believe. They usually go with the messenger, but they go without any real élan, without any of that earnestness which they display after getting personal experience of the existence of the store of food. After that they are all urgency. After that they outrun their fellows, and can not reach the store of provisions too soon. But on the hearing of the ear they act with the utmost languor. They follow, but so slowly that they never keep up with their eager guide, soon drop behind, and generally give up the expedition, as one beyond their courage or strength, or at least too much for their half faith. Let us hear Sir John's curious delineation of the sort of authority which one ant's information appears to carry to his fellow-ants:

"I selected a specimen of Atta testaceo-pilosa, belonging to a nest which I had brought back with me from Algeria. She was out hunting about six feet from home, and I placed before her a large dead blue-bottle fly, which she at once began to drag to the nest. I then pinned the fly to a piece of cork, in a small box, so that no ant could see the fly until she had climbed up the side of the box. The ant struggled, of course in vain, to move the fly. She pulled first in one direction and then in another, but, finding her efforts fruitless, she at length started off back to the nest empty-handed. At this time there were no ants coming out of the nest. Probably there were some few others out hunting, but for at least a quarter of an hour no ant had left the nest. My ant entered the nest, but did not remain there; in less than a minute she emerged, accompanied by seven friends. I never saw so many come out of that nest together before. In her excitement the first ant soon distanced her companions, who took the matter with much sang-froid, and had all the appearance of having come out reluctantly, or as if they had been asleep and were only half awake. The first ant ran on ahead, going straight to the fly. The others followed slowly and with many meanderings; so slowly, indeed, that for twenty minutes the first ant was alone at the fly, trying in every way to move it. Finding this still impossible, she again returned to the nest, not chancing to meet any of her friends by the way. Again she emerged in less than a minute with eight friends, and hurried on to the fly. They were even less energetic than the first party; and, when they found they had lost sight of their guide, they one and all returned to the nest. In the mean time, several of the first detachment had found the fly, and one of them succeeded in detaching a leg, with which she returned in triumph to the nest, coming out again directly with four or five companions. These latter, with one exception, soon gave up the chase and returned to the nest. I do not think so much of this last case, because, as the ant carried in a substantial piece of booty in the shape of the fly's leg, it is not surprising that her friends should some of them accompany her on her return; but surely the other two cases indicate a distinct power of communication. Lest, however, it should be supposed that the result was accidental, I determined to try it again. Accordingly, on the following day I put another large dead fly before an ant belonging to the same nest, pinning it to a piece of cork as before. After trying in vain for ten minutes to move the fly, my ant started off home. At that time I could only see two other ants of that species outside the nest. Yet in a few seconds, considerably less than a minute, she emerged with no less than twelve friends. As in the previous case, she ran on ahead, and they followed very slowly and by no means directly, taking, in fact, nearly half an hour to reach the fly. The first ant, after vainly laboring for about a quarter of an hour to move the fly, started off again to the nest. Meeting one of her friends on the way, she talked with her a little, then continued toward the nest, but, after going about a foot, changed her mind, and returned with her friend to the fly. After some minutes, during which two or three other ants came up, one of them detached a leg, which she carried off to the nest, coming out again almost immediately with six friends, one of whom, curiously enough, seemed to lead the way, tracing it, I presume, by scent. I then removed the pin, and they carried off the fly in triumph. Again, on June 15th, another ant belonging to the same nest had found a dead spider, about the same distance from the nest. I pinned down the spider as before. The ant did all in her power to move it; but after trying for twelve minutes, she went off to the nest. For a quarter of an hour no other ant had come out, but in some seconds she came out again with ten companions. As in the preceding case, they followed very leisurely. She ran on ahead, and worked at the spider for ten minutes; when, as none of her friends had arrived to her assistance, though they were wandering about evidently in search of something, she started back home again. In three quarters of a minute after entering the nest she reappeared, this time with fifteen friends, who came on somewhat more rapidly than the preceding batch, though still but slowly. By degrees, however, they all came up, and after most persevering efforts carried off the spider piecemeal. On July 7th I tried the same experiment with a soldier of Pheidole megacephala. She pulled at the fly for no less than fifty minutes, after which she went to the nest and brought five friends exactly as the Atta had done."

Can anything be more remarkable than the extraordinary difference in the demeanor of the ants taught by personal experience, and of the ants trusting to the report of another? Obviously, the latter had a very languid belief in the statements of their friends, just enough to make them enter on the enterprise, but not enough to make them prosecute it even so far as to hasten their pace in order to keep up with their eager friend. Clearly, the ants are not very good judges of character. Their predisposition to distrust sanguine statements, like the predisposition of timid conservatives in general, is so deep, that at the first obstacle they fall away, perhaps questioning the use of tasking themselves for news that sounds so improbable as that of a treasure trove. Sir John Lubbock even reports one case in which a slave-ant, of the Polyergus species, twice returned to her nest in search of cooperation in vain. Nothing she could say would induce her fellow slaves to enter on a new bit of work, without better evidence of its remunerative character than a wandering fellow-servant's report gave them. Twice she returned alone to the unequal task, reproaching bitterly, no doubt, the faithlessness of her associates.

Those who doubt our reports of the extremely timid political caution of these insect tribes will convince themselves that we are not exaggerating if they will but refer to Sir John's very interesting account of these formican Conservatives—Tories they are not, for obviously there is no blatant element in the politics of the ants. Their democracy, when they are democrats, is the democracy of the Swiss Republic, not the democracy of the Imperialists, still less the democracy of the French Revolution.—Spectator.