If you, like me, thought human beings were the first farmers, you would be wrong. Ants began farming 55 to 60 million years ago while the origins of human farmers date at the earliest 11,500 BC. While farmer ants have a common farmer ancestor, human farming occurred separately on different parts of the globe at different times with the Chinese first in their domestication of rice.
Ant brains no larger than pinpoints figured out how to grow fungi in climate-controlled underground chambers. If you had X-ray vision, you’d see great webs of chambers under forest floors. Ants weed, water, and keep harmful bacteria away from their crops. Hmm, I wonder how much they charge per hour.
The ants ancestral farmers originated in the rain forest of South America, but 30 million years ago a branch of ants diverged and carried their craft to drier climates. The primary researcher of the evolution of these ants, Dr. Ted Schultz1 speculates, “With enough time, the dry climate created ideal conditions for the more complex ant farmers to domesticate the fungus, controlling temperature by digging deeper chambers, or maintaining humidity by bringing in water from fruits, plants or morning dew.” Wow!
Then, there are the bees. They originated intelligent twerking. Not only do they communicate through waggle dancing, they can teach each other to use tools. Biologist Olli J. Loukola2 used a plastic model of a bee to demonstrate that moving a ball to the center of a platform resulted in a reward of a sugary treat. It didn’t take long before a host of bees was pulling strings—literally—for dessert. See video in Sources. The researchers also used bees’ ability to detect magnetic fields to guide bees to pull the ball, but the fake-bee teacher worked best.
Bees also invented crowdsourcing decision-making. When a swarm of bees needs a new colony, a few hundred scouts will zoom off in different directions to look for potential locations. Then, they twerk to communicate information about found sites to the swarm. This decision-making practice inspired Louis Rosenberg, who runs a Silicon Valley startup called Unanimous AI, to build a tool to support human decision-making by crowdsourcing opinions online. Hundreds of participants respond to a question all at once, pooling their opinions into a single answer. He cites examples of better predictions than polls. He also talks about situations where a swarm of human doctors may make better decisions than artificial intelligence software.
If only humans could work together as well as bees, our planet would be a better place.
- Ted Schultz is an entomologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- Olli J. . Loukola is at Queen Mary University of London