The Wisdom of Ants ll By Stephanie Boulton

This blog post is an amalgamation of excerpts from a paper I wrote a year and a half ago for an eco-psychology class. We were asked to write about a natural being that we found a connection with: 

Ants are among the social insects (social insects are all of the genera Hymenoptera which also includes wasps, and bees), which have complex societies, social classes and modes of communication. Among the many ant species, ant communities may range in numbers from hundreds of millions to four (Moffett, 2010). But, unlike other insects, ants do not exist outside of their role in the community, they do not wander or forage alone or work for themselves. They have social identities that are completely linked to the survival of the whole. Some have compared the functioning of ants to the individual cells of a human body; each cell having a tiny part in creating life for a larger whole. Insect societies have been dubbed ‘superorganisms’, as the ant colonies themselves function as one huge unified organism (Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, 2009).

Although ant brains are among the largest of all the insects (Moffett, 2010), it is incredulous to us humans that they exist not for themselves, and have individual identities: rather they exist only as part of the whole.

As I contemplated this, I was forced to ponder our own culture.

The entire idea of capitalism is that if we all function for our own best interest society will in turn benefit, which would not make sense in comparison to the ant kingdom. Ants are the archetypal representation of the collective, none working for their own self-interest only in the interest of the colony, and as a result they are wildly successful as a species. Their adaptability and prolific success of ants in the ecosystem is indisputable. It is estimated that there are around 22,000 species of ant and it is estimated that the total biomass of ants greatly outweighs that of all of humanity. Ants exist on all continents and practically every ecosystem, only excluding the polar icecaps (Moffett, 2010). It is no question that they have learned to thrive and as a result of creating highly successful complex societies where the purpose of individuals is to serve the whole.  

Even in my own experience ants are relentless in their pursuits, and can seem like an unstoppable force. I remember one year an ant infestation in our kitchen, as we were only undergrad students at the time we tried various methods to try and stop these endless streams of ants flowing in from spaces in the floorboards. I used packing tape to attempt to block their path and they squished through all the possible holes. We used liquid ant poison, and probably boiling water to no avail.  I have also watched people pour boiling water down ant hills, or turned over logs exposing the inner cavities of the ant hills, and watched as the ants without pause worked to save their colony by picking up larvae or moving it to other places. 

In the words of Owusu (1996), “the ant is tenacious, strong, aggressive, generous, and very meticulous. It’s most pronounced characteristic, however, is patience” (p. 142).  Ants will work ceaselessly towards their goals. Reading this reminds me to direct my energy where I want to go, to have tenacity and patience that my efforts will be fruitful.

It also reminds me that working for the good of community takes time and effort. This is reassuring.

Owusu (2010) further elaborates on the meaning of ant symbolism by explaining:

“The ant teaches you that you will have everything you need and will receive it when you need it most. It is the symbol of basic trust. It knows that it will ultimately be rewarded for all its efforts. If your activities are for the common good, then you will receive back any energy that you have expended. It may be, however, that you will have to put greater effort into the realization of your dreams and use your creativity.” (p. 143)

I also feel that the ants are sending an important message to the larger society to bring our focus back to community. They may be saying that we have taken individualism too far, and it is time to refocus our energies on the collective. Together we can accomplish so much more than we can as individuals. It is up to us to communicate and reprioritize in order to move our societies in the directions that we need to go. This is a very powerful message for our times as we are collectively facing such large problems. But unlike ants, humans can diverge from the collective, this is not a negative aspect it adds to our communities and perhaps we have taken individualism too far and need to reunify as a species.

Although these times in our humanity can seem daunting, and dark, the ants also bring a redemptive message if we listen, have courage and most of all have persistence. Somewhat along the lines of Johanna Macy’s message of the Great Turning,

The ant societies are telling us to get our act together and create something new.

For the Dogon and Bamara peoples of Mali, ants were a symbol of fertility. Ant hills were the sexual organ of the earth, ants a symbol of life and rejuvenation.  The ants are telling us we can our acts together and create a stronger collective reality. They are reminding us to put our own self-interest aside, focus on the larger picture, and prepare for the future.

  • Chevalier, J. & Gheerbrant, A. (1996). The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. (J. Buchanan-Brown, Trans.) New York: Penguin Books. (Original work published in France 1969). 
  • Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (2009). The superorganism: the beauty, elegance, and strangeness of insect societies. New York; WW Norton & Company.
  • Moffett, M. W. (2010). Adventures among ants: A global safari with a cast of trillions. Los Angeles, CA; University of California Press.
  • Owusu, H. (1999). Symbols of Native North America. New York; Sterling Publishing Group.

Stephanie (she/her/hers) believes that healing results from expanding our capacity for meaningful connections and relationships. She has a background working with a diversity of people in outdoor settings and draws from attachment theory, body-based and experiential therapies, as well as ecological and feminist approaches. Currently pursuing her MA in Counseling at Regis, Stephanie aims to incorporate how familial, social, economic and cultural forces interact in our society to impact individual well-being. Stephanie will be starting her own practice in mid-May. Contact her at: