the group (collective) mind of insects

There is a large anthill in our backyard.  It is a two peaked earthen monument that rises about 14 inches or more above the surrounding bare desert ground.  We have left this mountain in miniature intact for the nearly 11 years we have lived in our current home.  (No, we do not have a dog that would likely tear it up.)  A few times, over the years, I have accidentally stepped on part of this hill when doing yard work and becoming distracted.  At those times, the red ants surge forth from the entrance to their hill and swarm about en masse in damage assessment, and then quickly begin repairs to their communal home.

Can they be acting independently as individuals?  There is to be sure a coordination to their efforts as they do successfully rebuild their home.  Is this ability simply a hard-wired instinct in their tiny brains or nervous systems?

This anthill is covered in snow and ice at times during the winter.  It endures the occasional summer deluge from a slow moving thunder storm.  It endures through the dry summer heat that lasts for about 3 months or more each year.  We can only guess at how many queens have lived out their lives deep inside, and died in these past 11 years.  The life of the community or colony continues.

In the summer of 2000, I was sealing and staining a 2 story (external) wooden staircase with a top deck in the backyard of the flat where we were living in San Francisco.  The Sunset District, so named for the distant sunsets over the Pacific you can see on a clear evening, was overcast and cool on those June days.  This was the opportune time to do the work as July would bring more sun and not give optimal conditions for the work.  I had observed a large hive hanging underneath the top deck.  It was a home for wasps.

Being concerned for safety, I made a couple of phone calls to local pest control services and explained the situation.  One kindly gentleman asked me to describe the hive and asked if it looked like a turban.  It did.  He said we could just leave it there as in a few more weeks the wasps would have likely died off.  In the meantime, he informed me, the wasps were eating many mosquitoes, and that is a good thing.  Thus, we left the hive intact.

The sealing and staining work was a 2 or 3 day process as I work slowly but do a thorough and complete job.  The wasps, which seem to be to some extent nocturnal or to be more noticeably active at dusk, were not bothered by the work on the staircase, its hand rails, or on the wooden supports around the perimeter of the top deck surface.  When gently working (never been a slam dunker) on the deck itself on hands and knees, the wasps were feeling vibrations to their hive that was hanging from the underside of the wood near a corner.

Periodically, a wasp would fly up from the hive and hover in the air near the wooden guard rail.  Being on the lookout for this, at these times, I would stop all movement.  In my mind, I was saying “please do not form a group mind and hence give a group response”.  (Perhaps, the thought ought to have been “do not return to your hive and sound the alarm – i am peaceful”.)  If the wasps swarmed at me, no doubt, at least a few stings would be inflicted on my body even whilst fleeing the area.  The legitimate fear of an allergic reaction crossed my mind.

The sentinel wasp on duty would after a short time drop down out of sight back to the hive.  A little while later, still working on the fairly good size deck, a wasp would reappear to see (or smell?) what was going on.  The same exercise in patience and remaining calm took place.  Not sure now how many times this happened, at least 3 or 4, perhaps a little more.

The wasps never swarmed out, and thus did not put into practice the old adage that the best defense is a good offense.  Being thoughtful not to arouse the wasps, the work was completed safely and the wasps lived out the rest of their relatively short life span in peace.

What about us human beings?  Do we always think independently?  Or, are we prone to acting like a non-thinking cell or unit of a larger group or collective consciousness?  There is the term “herd instinct” as in cattle stampeding or sheep following one another over a cliff.  Do sociologists and psychologists have any good answers yet?  Not sure about that.  But, so-called “peer group” pressure is real, and can lead individuals to self-destructive behaviours.

Are we thinking human beings, or at times do we behave like human insects?

Mini rant

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