They live all around us and use our resources in their secret societies. They have been around long before we came into the picture and cover 90 percent of our planet. Some are gardeners and farmers. Others keep domestic flocks like us humans. They appear alien to us because their world is tied up to invisible chemicals, so different from our visual world. They follow invisible trails and obey chemical cues unique to their societies – the very chemicals that at birth defined what the role of each individual would be within their society. Though far more organized, as far as we know, their social structure is the most parallel to ours. So much so that in the Bible God demands us to go to them and learn from them, and yet we know so little about them. Do you know them?
Ants – Understanding the Family of God for Dummies
The book of Proverbs is one of my favourite “go to” books whenever I want to hear God directly speak to me. A few months back as I was reading this book, I came across Proverbs 6:6 which says: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” Although I had read this verse many times before, I had never paid too much attention to it, but on that day I asked myself why God tells us to go to the ant? What good can possibly come out of me observing ants? Little did I know this was a turning point in my life and by attempting to deconstruct such a small verse, I would forever change my perspective on how I would look at things which are seemingly insignificant.
Why ants? Why not goats, lions, or some other significant animal? The simple answer is… well there is none. God’s ways are always different from ours. God chose ants to show us how we ought to live our lives.
At first glance looking at an ant colony may appear a blur of activity, each ant doing its own thing but this is far from the truth. Though to our standards an individual ant is not very bright, but ants in a colony, operating as a collective, do remarkable things. So much so that scientists call ants “superorganisms”. According to Wikipedia, the technical definition of a superorganism is “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective,”phenomena being any activity “the hive wants” such as ants collecting food or bees choosing a new nest site. They exhibit a form of “distributed intelligence,” a system in which many individual agents with limited intelligence and information are able to pool resources to accomplish a goal beyond the capabilities of the individuals.
Surely ants must use such complex social structure under the supervision of a leader or at least a group of ants, right? Wrong. In Proverbs 6:7 the Bible tells us that an ant has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest. Only in the past 150 years we have managed to unlock some of the secrets of ants’ societies – secrets which perhaps not so surprisingly go hand in hand with the word of God.
Before we get into the social structure of ants it is important to have a look at some of the attributes of ants and what makes them so successful.
1. Well-organized & cooperative – Ants have different roles. Although they have the ability to contribute to other tasks equally, each member knows its role and is extremely disciplined to carry out its task unless there is an immediate need or danger to the colony.They are so well organized that the entire colony carries out tasks without a leader. Some colonies of ants are so organized that instead of a finding nest areas, they are able to use only their mobile mass of bodies of thousands growing solid to create a living shell around the queen and the young.
Corinthians 12:17 says: “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” Also Corinthians 12:27 says: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
(We’ll talk about the chemical communication and it’s significance a little later)
Do we know our role and are we willing to act accordingly without constant supervision?
2. Selfless – In the natural world, our closest example of selflessness is by far ants. For instance, let’s look at their eating habits.If they find something edible they immediately bring it back to the colony and share it with the rest. Another remarkable example would be that ants do not value their lives as individuals. The safety and progress of the colony is what matters to each individual ant. Perhaps this behaviour can’t be any more evident than when a forest fire sparks near the colony. The typical animal/human reaction in a similar scenario would be to run away to safety. Ants, however, are driven by their pre-programmed corporate instinct which drives them to continue working even until fire surrounds and engulfs them.
Galatians 5:14 says: “Forthe whole law is fulfilled in one word:’You shall love your neighbor as yourself'””
What does man do?
3. Tireless –Ants are always busy doing something productive, like finding food, nursing, cleaning, or defending the colony. Even when it seems like they are sitting around doing nothing inside the nest they are actually acting as reserves.
John 9:4 says: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”
What are we busy with?
4. Persistent / Flexible – Whenever an obstacle is placed in their way, ants have the flexibility to find a way around, below or over, as a team.
Proverbs 24:16 says: “For a righteousmanmay fall seven times and rise again, but the wicked shall fall by calamity.”
What do we do when faced with obstacles in life?
5.Well-Planned – Ants collect food all summer so that when cold, unbearable winter comes, they don’t lack anything.
Luke 14:28-33 says: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.”
What are we planning for?
6.Disciplined – Ants are known for carrying, for long distances, objects that are up to 100 times heavier than themselves back to the colony… and they do this all day every day.
Proverbs 3:11-12 says: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor detest His correction; For whom the Lord loves He corrects, Just as a father the son in whom he delights.”
How quickly do we give up?
7.Teamwork – Everything an ant does is for the benefit of the colony. It is a known fact that colonies of ants have successfully forced predators as big as grizzly bear to retreat through working together. In some colonies, ants have given teamwork a new definition. When faced with a flood in the Amazon, these ants amazingly create a lifeboat using their own bodies to save the queen and the eggs from dying. When they are pushed underneath the water they pull themselves even tighter together and become further watertight and they simply pop back out to the surface. They could survive like this for months waiting for dry land.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says: “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
How do we stand against the enemy?
Please also consider this: Ants do not always function with precision and efficiency, like clockwork. In fact, if you watch ants, you end up wanting to help them because they never seem to be doing things exactly the way they ought to be doing. Ants aren’t perfect but overall they work pretty well as a team. It’s also worth mentioning that each one of these ants has the potential to be an individual, to go off and do its own thing, but they don’t. They persist in living in these societies.
In the quest for decoding ants’ secrets for success we come to our last but most astonishing point, which is the colony’s social structure. The ant colony is typically divided into the following classes: queen/queens (reproductive females), males, workers and soldiers (non-reproductive females). The workers also get divided into several classes: nurses, foragers and cleaners. So how do ants know what group or class they belong to? When a queen lays eggs, each egg can develop into a different caste depending various factors such as temperature and nutrition. But the key to “switching” into a specific caste is controlled to a large extent by one chemical inside the egg, which is called juvenile hormone. Also interestingly enough ants use a graduating structure much similar to our schools. The ants that nurse the queen and the young tend to be younger ants protected deep within the colony; as they grow and become slightly older, they become responsible for cleaning the colony’s nest. Finally when they are fully mature they become foragers, looking for food outside the colony.
It’s remarkable, isn’t it? The spiritual resemblance of the church (body of Christ) to the ant colony could not be any clearer. In Acts 17:28 the Bible says: “In him we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Just like in an ant colony the church has elders/pastors (queens) that plant the seed into people’s heart which is the first step to becoming the offspring of Christ. After the seed is planted, the Holy Spirit takes control (the chemical inside the egg) determining God’s will, his perfect plan for us and the position he has chosen for us within this superorganism. While our individual calling is controlled to a large extent by the Holy Spirit, however the amount of spiritual nutrition we receive and the environment we are placed in has a lot to do with us being able to switch to that specific caste. 1 Peter 2:2: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, [The more you eat, the quicker you will grow and graduate faster].” Finally as we grow and mature in Christ we are able to leave the protection of our nest and contribute to the work of our father outside of the colony. Though as individuals we are weak, through the “distributed intelligence,” given to us through the Holy Spirit by our heavenly Father, we are able to achieve remarkable things. Not for our selfish desires but for the sake of the body of Christ (the colony). We have the ability to achieve all these things while being led by the Holy Spirit (chemical) and without direct supervision of other members. Romans 12:3-6: “For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body [colony], and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us…”
I would now like to talk about one more amazing fact we could learn from ants. There are certain types of ant colonies where each ant has the potential to reproduce. Even though they have the ability, in most cases however they give up their queenly ambition, for the sake of a more organized system where each ant has a particular duty to perform. Rebellion and conflict is not uncommon in these types of colonies as every now and then an ant does decide it wants to reproduce also and start its own colony. Such action is considered cheating to ants, because it undermines the whole cohesiveness of the colony and results in serious reaction by the other members. But then there are other species of ants that have the advantage of being a bit higher in the superorganism scale. They achieve that by a major sacrifice because these individual ants do not reproduce. The future of their colony has to flow through the queen/queens. Scientists call these type of ants the true superorganism. This lack of ability to reproduce allows them to tie in better and act literally as larger cells of a single organism. Instead of their own self-interest they devote themselves solely to maintaining the colony and raising the next generation of queens. Perhaps the perfect example of such species of ants is the Argentine ant. As the name suggests, they originated in South America, but have managed to become the most widely distributed ants on earth. They couldn’t have done this so quickly and efficiently if they had not used a specific trick: instead of fighting neighbouring colonies, they joined forces to make a super colony. Perhaps we could use this as a type for Christianity as a whole. Throughout the centuries, the leading cause for the spread of Christianity has been the unity of the individuals, taking part in the ministry of Christ. Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from these super colonies of ants. Perhaps internal church conflicts that lead to the division of a church could be avoided. Perhaps we could learn that instead of fighting each other over different denominations and minute theological differences, we could join forces and look at Christ as the head and allow the Holy Spirit (the invisible chemical) to direct and guide us as one body so that we could become the true superorganism of Christ.
Proverbs 6:6 “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!”
Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Amen and God bless,
A lot of the scientific facts I used throughout this document have been direct quotes from the following documentaries:
National Geographic Wild City Of Ants
Ants – Nature’s Secret Power (Full)
Planet Ant – Life Inside The Colony – BBC
Deborah Gordon: The emergent genius of ant colonies
There are a lot more significant data I had to leave out to keep this document short. I encourage all readers to watch these documentaries.