According to Santa Fe Institute Board Member Deborah Gordon, some ants are lazy and some just aren't very good at whatever it is they're trying to do.

Gordon was interviewed on the Irish public radio podcast Future Proof this week about her work with harvester ants, which are native to the southwest. She said that ant colonies function without any central leadership, but communicate by smelling each other with their antennae. They know what to do based on the pattern of interactions, but the overall success of an ant colony belies the apparent incompetence of ants as individuals, according to Gordon.

"No ant ever seems to be doing anything really well," Gordon told host Jonathan McCray. "And that's what's so fascinating about ant colonies, is that on the aggregate when you put them all together they are so successful. There are ants everywhere on earth, there are 11000 species, so it's a very diverse and widespread group. But when you look at what an ant is doing it looks like it needs help."

She also revealed that in 12000-strong harvester ant colonies, about one third don't appear to be doing anything - not even raiding picnic baskets or getting into people's pants. In an essay for the Boston Review, Gordon notes that this fact is problematic for ants' image as busy servants dedicated to the greater good.

"Our stories about ants always have morals about how people ought to behave: soldiers should die for their country; we should conserve resources and plan for the future; a dutiful factory worker should cheerfully perform his or her appointed task. These morals come from stories about ants that are not true."