foraging ant  The logistics of social insects

Weaver ants joining leaves to make a nest

Figure 1: Weaver ants cooperate to "sew" leaves together to form a nest.

No bee or ant has a blueprint for coordinating the foraging of the colony; yet activity on the colony level is astonishing efficient. How do social insects achieve effective global coordination from simple local behavior?

Weaver ants joining leaves to make a nest

Figure 2: A solitary forager of the Malaysian giant forest ant

In February and March of 1999 I was finally able to observe the weaver ant in Singapore. This is a quite aggressive species: Even individuals will charge a person; and battalions of them will leap out of their tree on a perceived threat. But their most amazing feature is that they cooperate to pull leaves together while one of their nestmates "sews" the leaves to make a nest. The ant that "sews" accomplishes this by holding one of colony’s larvae and touching it alternately, back and forth, from leaf to leaf while the larvae exudes its silk (like spider’s silk).

Figure 1 shows two of the weaver ants standing on a nest in a tree. The white material between the leaves is the silk holding the nest together.

In August 1999 I first saw the Malaysian giant forest ant in the Bukit Timah nature preserve. This is a species of Camponatus or carpenter ant. Solitary individuals forage along the forest floor. They are alarmingly large, an inch in length, but quite mild mannered.