Biomimicry: Further Insights from Ant Colonies?

  • Francis L. W. Ratnieks
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 5151)


Biomimicry means learning from nature. Well known examples include physical structures such as the Velcro fastener. But natural selection has also “engineered” mechanisms by which the components of adaptive biological systems are organized. For example, natural selection has caused the foragers in an ant colony to cooperate and communicate in order to increase the total foraging success of the colony. Ant colony optimization (ACO) is based on the pheromone trails by which many ant species communicate the locations of food in the environment around the nest. Computer algorithms based on ACO perform well in hard computational problems like the Traveling Salesman Problem. ACO algorithms normally use only a single attractive “pheromone”. However, it seems that real ants use more. The Pharaoh’s ant, Monomorium pharaonis, uses three different trail pheromones to provide short-term (volatile) and long-term attraction (non-volatile) and short-term (volatile) repellence so that foragers are directed to particular locations of the trail system where food can be collected. In addition, Pharaoh’s ants also extract information from the geometry of the trail system and have division of labour among the forager workers, some of whom specialize in laying and detecting pheromone trails. ACO takes inspiration from ant colonies but does not need to faithfully model how ant colonies solve problems. For example, in ACO “pheromone” is applied retroactively once an “ant” has returned to the nest, which is something that can easily be implemented in a computer program but is obviously something that real ants cannot do. This raises the possibility that ACO might benefit from taking further inspiration from ant colonies. Presumably, real ants use multiple information sources and communication signals for a reason.


Ant colony optimization Pharaoh’s ant Monomorium pharaonis honey bee Apis mellifera social insects complex adaptive systems 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Benyus, J.M.: Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. William Morrow (1997)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Passino, K.M.: Biomimicry for Optimization, Control and Automation. Springer, Heidelberg (2005)zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  3. 3.
    Darwin, C.: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. John Murray, London (1859)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Van Parunak, H.V.D.: Go to the Ant: Engineering Principles from Natural Agent Systems. Ann. Operations Res. 75, 69–101 (1997)CrossRefzbMATHGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Dorigo, M., Stützle, T.: Ant Colony Optimization. Bradford Books, MIT Press, Cambridge (2004)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Bonabeau, E., Dorigo, M., Theraulaz, G.: Swarm Intelligence: from Natural to Artificial Systems. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1999)zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Bonabeau, E., Theraulaz, G.: Swarm Smarts. Scientific American 282(3), 54–61 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ratnieks, F.L.W.: Outsmarted by Ants. Nature 436, 465 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 9.
    Alcock, J.: Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach. Sinauer, Sunderland (2005)Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Seeley, T.D.: The Wisdom of the Hive. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1995)Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Hölldobler, B., Wilson, E.O.: The Ants. Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Camazine, S., Deneubourg, J.-L., Franks, N.R., Sneyd, J., Theraulaz, G., Bonabeau, E.: Self-Organization in Biological Systems. Princeton University Press, Princeton (2001)zbMATHGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    Robinson, E.J.H., Jackson, D.E., Holcombe, M., Ratnieks, F.L.W.: ”No entry” Signal in Ant Foraging. Nature 438, 442 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Beekman, M., Sumpter, D.J., Ratnieks, F.L.W.: Phase Transition between Ordered and Disordered Foraging in Pharaoh’s Ants. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA 98, 9703–9706 (2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 15.
    Jeanson, R., Ratnieks, F.L.W., Deneubourg, J.-L.: Pheromone Trail Decay Rates on Different Substrates in the Pharaoh’s ant, Monomorium pharaonis (L.). Physiol. Entomol. 28, 192–198 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 16.
    Jackson, D.E., Holcombe, M., Ratnieks, F.L.W.: Geometry Gives Polarity to Ant Pheromone Trails. Nature 432, 907–909 (2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Jackson, D.E., Martin, S.J., Ratnieks, F.L.W., Holcombe, M.: Spatial and Temporal Variation in Pheromone Composition of Ant Foraging Trails. Behav. Ecol. 18, 444–450 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 18.
    Hart, A., Jackson, D.E.: U-Turns on Ant Pheromone Trails. Current Biol. 16, R42–R43 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Jackson, D.E., Châline, N.: Modulation of Pheromone Trail Strength with Food Quality in Pharaoh’s ant, Monomorium pharaonis. Anim. Behav. 73, 463–470 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Jackson, D.E., Martin, S.J., Holcombe, M., Ratnieks, F.L.W.: Longevity and Detection of Persistent Foraging Trails in Pharaoh’s ants, Monomorium pharaonis (L.). Anim. Behav. 71, 351–359 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Jackson, D.E., Ratnieks, F.L.W.: Primer: Communication in Ants. Current Biol. 16(15), R570–R574 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 22.
    Robinson, E.J.H., Jenner, E.A., Green, K.E., Holcombe, M., Ratnieks, F.L.W.: Decay Rate of Positive and Negative Pheromones in an Ant Foraging Trail Network. Insectes Soc. (in press)Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Fewell, J.H.: Social Insect Networks. Science 301, 1867–1870 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 24.
    Leoncini, I., et al.: Regulation of Behavioral Maturation by a Primer Pheromone Produced by Adult Worker Honey Bees. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 101, 17559–17564 (2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 25.
    Anderson, C., Ratnieks, F.L.W.: Worker Allocation in Insect Societies: Coordination of Nectar Foragers and Nectar Receivers in the Honey Bee. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 46, 73–81 (1999)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 26.
    Thom, C., Gilley, D.C., Hooper, J., Esch, H.E.: The Scent of the Waggle Dance. PLoS Biology 5, 1862–1867 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francis L. W. Ratnieks
    • 1
  1. 1.Laboratory of Apiculture & Social Insects Department of Biological & Environmental ScienceUniversity of SussexFalmer, BrightonUK

Personalised recommendations