A study published in Biology Letters has revealed how important architecture is for harvester ant nests. The authors argue that human architects can learn a lot from the features that assist nest inhabitants in sharing information and becoming better foragers.
Harvester ants (Veromessor andrei) often move into nests abandoned by others. Their foraging behavior changes depending on the nest they occupy at the time. The ants do better in well-connected nests, allowing an ant who finds food to recruit others to help collect it.
For the study, Dr. Noa Pinter-Wollman from the University of California, San Diego, placed pieces of apple 10-15 centimeters (4-6 inches) from the entrances of 106 nests and observed responses. She created plaster casts of 32 nests that were vacated before the study finished and that were not disturbed by other animals.
One of the plaster casts Pinter-Wollman made of a harverster ant nest to study its architecture. Credit: Noa Pinter-Wollman/UC San Diego
"The volume of the chambers has little influence on the speed of recruitment, suggesting that the spatial organization of a nest has a greater impact on collective behavior than the number of workers it can hold," said Pinter-Wollman in a statement. "One straightforward lesson that will probably not surprise many architects is that having more corridors connecting offices or rooms will facilitate easier movement of people among them, both promoting interactions and expediting evacuation in emergency."
In addition, Pinter-Wollman thinks ants provide an example in support of theories that architects are just starting to implement. “Increasing the connectivity of locations with an important function, such as break rooms, where people interact – similar to the entrance chamber of the ants – could increase interactions and collaborations," she said.
Making the ants sound remarkably human, Pinter-Wollman told IFLScience that ants wait in the entrance chamber "trying to decide whether or not to leave the nest." Their decisions depend on whether returning foragers they met have been successful.
Pinter-Wollman added, “From other work I've done with a different harvester ant species I found that certain areas in the entrance chamber facilitate more interactions – referred to as 'interaction hot spots.' These areas are usually near the entrances to tunnels so it is possible that if there are more tunnels leading into the entrance chamber, there are more of these interaction hot spots.”
Building designers take note: “In humans, such interaction hot spots can emerge for example around water coolers or kitchen areas in offices,” Pinter-Wollman told IFLScience. “So it is possible that if many corridors lead to these places, they will facilitate more interactions and collaborations than if they are placed at a remote part of the building with few corridors leading to them.”
Coincidently, the paper was released the same day as another exploring the way a different species of ant provides lessons in network design. Pinter-Wollman told IFLScience, “It would be interesting to see how the function of the nest is influenced by external forces, just as networks of electricity have to deal with passing over mountains and large bodies of water.”