Dr. Deborah Gordon, a professor of biology at Stanford University who studies the ecology and behavior of ant colonies, knows more about ants than you do. Like, a lot more. We spoke with her about the ants in the Marvel movie Ant-Man to get the down-low on these cooperating creatures. Good news: The movie gets a few things right. Bad news: The movie gets a lot more wrong.
But the worst news? We will never, ever be able to control teeming colonies of insects with our brains. Curses, Dr. Gordon!
What did you think of the movie?
I thought it was a great movie. There were so many wonderful, improbable ant events.
I also really liked Them!, the giant mutant ant in the L.A. sewer system. And there’s Phase IV, where there’s a biosphere-like research station in the desert, and the evil ants get together to undermine the computer system and attack the scientists.
Let’s get right to the important question: Can we control ants with our minds?
Nobody controls the ants. The fascinating thing about ants is that there is no one in charge and no one tells them what to do.
There’s no leader. Even if we had a device to speak with ants, they would not be waiting for instructions, because they don’t follow instructions.
When Scott Lang first shrank down to ant size, the ants were automatically his allies. Wouldn’t the ants try to kill and eat him?
If they were out for a little walk in the woods and an ant met something that didn’t smell like an ant, it might just walk on. The normal reaction would be, you smell different from anything I’ve smelled before.
Ants smell with their antenna, and ants do approach and touch each other [as they did when Scott Lang first encountered an ant when he was ant-sized]. They smell a layer of grease they have on their bodies, and that’s what they use to recognize each other.
We just published something about this, in fact: Each ant makes its own decisions about what smells like “us,” and what doesn’t. And not every ant gets it right every time, but in the aggregate, if something tries to come into the nest that has a different smell, probably someone will throw it out.
Can ants disrupt electricity with their bodies?
There’s a species of ant that has been found nesting in the boxes that hold electrical wires, and that pops up a lot in ant horror movies.
Ants can interfere with electrical wiring, but they don’t have some central plan that tells them how to change what the electrical wiring is doing.
Anything else that Ant-Man got wrong?
Antony is a girl. The flying ants that were shown were queen ants, are female. Ants with wings are reproductive, and they have wings only at the time when they’re ready to mate. Flying ants are on their way to reproduce.
That phalanx of flying ants that [Scott] was a part of when he was riding on Antony? That really doesn’t happen, because queens don’t fly out together to attack; they fly along with males to a central spot to mate.
If males also grow wings, then how can you tell that Antony was a girl?
The females have much bigger heads. The males live only long enough to mate, so they don’t have much jaw musculature, because they don’t even need to eat. Antony had a very big head, and she looked like a queen.
I think they did the animation by looking at pictures of ants, and they chose the picture of a queen ant on which to model an Antony, who is more of an Antoinette or Antonia.
All the ants you see walking around are female. It looks like there’s going to be Ant-Woman [Hope, Hank Pym's daughter]. She’s going to have a lot of company.
Actually, she’s going to be Wasp.
Wasp workers are female too. In all the social insects - ants, bees, and wasps - the ones you see walking around, or flying around, are sterile female workers.
As for Yellow Jacket, the villain who turned into the wasp? That doesn’t exist, either.
What did Ant-Man get right about ants and ant behavior?
A rope of ants descend from somewhere, and they made a bridge. They modeled those on real ants. Ants do make chains and bridges, again because one ant responds to the ant next to it, and the outcome is a bridge — not because somebody said make a bridge.
Another thing they got right is, the bullet ant really does have a terrible sting. (Ants bite with their heads and they sting with their abdomen; it’s the sting that has the venom in it, like the sting of a bee. Not all ants sting.) I hear it hurts a lot, but it’s not fatal.
But [bullet ants] live in very small colonies ... so you never see that many of them at a time.
Also [in the scene where Scott is in a bed surrounded by bullet ants], he put his foot down and they all backed away. It looked like the ants backed away because they saw his foot. But real ants wouldn’t be able do that because they can’t see very well or can only detect the difference between light and dark. They wouldn’t be able to see the foot as an obstacle that they could back away from like that.
So what did you you really think of Ant-Man?
I think I want one of those little devices that you put behind your ear that lets you talk to ants. I would love to be able to talk to them.
That’s not as fun as using them for evil.
I don’t have any urge to control them. The most powerful thing about ants is that they don’t take instructions and yet manage to accomplish so much. I’d like to find out how they control themselves.