Wandering Thoughts

March 2, 2009

Really Micro-Economics

Filed under: Ramblings and Musings — terence @ 6:18 pm
Tags: , ,

The poor souls over at The Visible Hand in Economics are loosing sleep over big things like job summits,  nationalisation and protectionism. I thought this, from Tim Flannery might cheer them up:

These mushroom farmers are known as attines, and they are found only in the New World. Widely known as leafcutter ants, they are doubtless familiar from wildlife documentaries.

The attines, say Hölldobler and Wilson, are “Earth’s ultimate superorganisms,” and there is no doubt that their status is due to their agricultural economy, which they developed 50 to 60 million years before humans sowed the first seed. Indeed, it is in the changes wrought in attine societies by agriculture that the principal interest for the student of human societies lies. The most sophisticated of attine ant species has a single queen in a colony of millions of sterile workers that vary greatly in size and shape, the largest being two hundred times heavier than the smallest. Their system of worker specialization is so intricate that it recalls Swift’s ditty on fleas:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

In the case of the attines, however, the varying size classes have specific jobs to do. Some cut a piece from a leaf and drop it to the ground, while others carry the leaf fragment to a depot. From there others carry it to the nest, where smaller ants cut it into fragments. Then ants that are smaller still take these pieces and crush and mold them into pellets, which even smaller ants plant out with strands of fungus. Finally, the very smallest ants, known as minims, weed and tend the growing fungus bed. These minute and dedicated gardeners do get an occasional outing, however, for they are known to walk to where the leaves are being cut and hitch a ride back to the nest on a leaf fragment. Their purpose in doing this is to protect the carrier ants from parasitic flies that would otherwise attack them. Clearly, not only did the attines beat us to agriculture, but they exemplified the concept of the division of labor long before Adam Smith stated it.


  1. […] Bill On the subject of ants. […]

    Pingback by Bill « Wandering Thoughts — March 4, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  2. “Clearly, not only did the attines beat us to agriculture, but they exemplified the concept of the division of labor long before Adam Smith stated it”


    Comment by Matt Nolan — March 6, 2009 @ 10:32 am

  3. my thoughts exactly…

    Comment by terence — March 6, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

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