Collective Intelligence, Wisdom Learned from Insects


An ant colony marches in an orderly manner, carrying crumbs. A line of ants quickly connects the starting and ending points as if they know the precise route. The sweets which are dozens of times bigger than the ants disappear in a flash in the movement of the swarm of ants moving in perfect order. However, when you watch an ant moving alone, it moves in all directions desultorily, awkwardly avoiding whatever is blocking its way; it doesn’t look that smart. However, when these ants gather together, they collect food at once. It is amazing.

Ant, an excellent mathematician

The intellectual ability that is gained through cooperating or competing is called collective intelligence, which exerts tremendous power far beyond the intelligence of an individual. Research on collective intelligence began when William Morton Wheeler, an American entomologist, observed the social activities of ants. Now let’s meet ants who show excellent math skills.

Fermat’s principle states that “light travels between two points along the path that requires the least time.” It is easy to understand this principle when we think that a rescuer takes a route that takes the least time from land to under the water in order to rescue a person from drowning.

Fermat’s principle

Amazingly, ants too move along the shortest path, following Fermat’s principle. A German research team put some food in a box with two different flooring materials and experimented with a group of ants in the box. At first, the path of the ants seemed inconsistent. However, it started to match the path anticipated by Fermat’s principle. As the moving speed changed due to the change of the floor material on the way to the food, the group of ants optimized their route accordingly.

When an ant moves, it attracts other ants by leaving pheromones. The stronger pheromones are, the more ants are attracted. At first, the ants moved randomly, but as time went by, more pheromones were left on the fastest route where more ants passed for the same amount of time, and it was chosen as the route by the group of ants.

It is not that those ants understood Fermat’s principle like humans do and selected the shortest route. Even without a clever strategist or a leader, the ants solved a complex problem by repeating a simple rule of following pheromones and finding food, and by going through many trials and errors. The intelligence of an ant may not be anything special, but they achieve something great by doing it together as a group.

Bees reach the best agreement

In the late spring, bees prepare to branch out as their house gets too crowded due to the increase of their family members. First, the scout bees search for a suitable place for their residence. When they find a right place to build a house, they come back to the swarm and wag their tails. It is their way to tell the others that the location they’ve found is good.

The scout bees fly straight ahead for a short distance, wagging their tail end, and then make the figure 8, and return to where they started. They repeat this, which looks like a dance. This dance is a means of communication among bees. The duration of the straight line dance indicates the distance to the location they’ve found, and the angle of the figure 8 indicates the direction of the location.

After seeing the dance of the scout bees, the other bees fly to the recommended location to explore. After exploration, if they liked it, they show their support by dancing in front of the swarm. The scout bees that do not get the support of other bees withdraw their claims by not dancing anymore. As this process is repeated, more and more bees get involved in the decision-making, and the best place with the most bees’ consent is chosen as the place of residence.

Termites, the best architects

In African grassland, we can see bizarre-shaped towers over three meters [10 ft] in height. You may wonder who built these huge sculptures in the middle of grassland, but surprisingly, the architects of these magnificent towers are termites. For 5 mm [0.2 inch]-long termites to build houses over three meters in height is equivalent to a man’s building skyscrapers over a thousand meters in height. If you consider that the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, is 830 meters [2,722 ft] high, the ability of termites is admirable.

The termite mound, which is conically shaped like a solid column, has many intricate passages connected to the holes on the surface of the mound. In the basement, there is a huge nesting room where many rooms are connected by long tunnels such as a nursery room for growing larvae, a mushroom cultivation greenhouse, and a food warehouse.

Termites feed on mushrooms which help them with digestion. The manure of hundreds of thousands of termites for mushroom cultivation emits enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and heat. Also, termites have fragile skin and require a humid environment even in dry desert climates.

However, termites can live in the dry desert because their elevated mound serves as a ventilation system that regulates temperature and humidity. The hot and dry air moves to the top of the mound and escapes it, and the cold outside wind comes inside through the bottom holes of the mound and pushes the hot air up again. The structure of this highly efficient mound maintains 27℃ [80.6℉] and 60% humidity in any climate.

The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, was built, inspired by the termite mound and was designed to maintain adequate temperature and humidity without using much energy. The effect was excellent. Even in the midsummer weather of Africa, the Eastgate Centre maintains a comfortable condition below 25℃ [77℉] without air conditioning, and the amount of electricity used is only 10% of a building of the same size.

There is no architectural design or scientific knowledge that these tiny insects, whose intelligence is near zero and have no sight, can refer to. It is just amazing that termites work together to build the best mound for their survival by merely following simple rules and working together.

Scientists are developing a system in which a number of small, simple robots, rather than one highly complex robot, cooperate, mimicking the collective intelligence of insects. They are expected to be used as nanorobots that move through blood vessels or robots that are put into the scenes of rescue. Software that imitates the excellent ability of ants to find the shortest time path is also used to predict and optimize traffic control, route guidance, and communication network services.

Collective intelligence—the superior ability made by small and insignificant insects that cooperate with each other even without a leader—seems a blessing of heaven given to small and feeble lives.

Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.Pr 6:6–8

Peter Miller, The Smart Swarm, Deseret News Publishing Company, 2018
Go Ho-gwan, What? Ants Know Fermat’s Principle? (in Korean, 개미가 페르마의 원리를 안다고?), Science Donga, July 2013
Lee In-sik, Group Intelligence of Ants, Bees, and Fish Changes the Future of the World? (in Korean, 개미, 벌, 물고기의 ‘떼지능’이 미래 세상 바꾼다), JoongWAng Sunday, May 19, 2013