Seems the ants can teach us a thing or two.

I rarely make New Year’s resolutions and after the year we’ve just had I think it would be rash to try to commit to any life changing regimes like taking up wind surfing or attempting a dry January.  One thing I am attempting to do is to return to the same time zone as the rest of the country.  Over the decades my body clock has taken a bit of a battering with late night gigs, replaced by early morning broadcasting before being replaced yet again by changing slots in the schedule and a move to late night radio.

During Twixtmas, that strange and glorious week between Christmas and New Year, we all start to shift our time zones.  We stay up late watching films and then of course get up later the following day only to binge on chocolate and mince pies. Going back to work in the New Year is a shock to the system but it usually sorted us out pretty quickly. Now, with so many working from home I think this year it might have been more difficult than normal for most of us.

But I’ve made a resolution and it is that I will try my best to get up and go to bed on the same day.

The trouble is while I’ve made that decision my brain is totally co-operating.  I might be able to drift off but staying asleep is proving to be a problem. Once I awake I know it’s going to take some time before I can drop off again.  I can either lie there getting cross or do what I normally do…turn on the radio. 

There are certain requirements for my night time listening, the programme has to be interesting enough to capture my imagination, long enough to stop me needing to search for another show but boring enough to allow me to drift off before they end.

Over the past week, with the help of BBC Radio 4 I have grasped a basic understanding of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the wide spread changes that the revolutionary Pharaoh Akhenaten made to Ancient Egypt and I’ve also learnt how the coffee house turned into Lloyds of London and the Stock Exchange. All were fascinating enough to keep me listening but just dull enough to let me fall asleep before the end of the show.

One of my favourite radio programmes is ‘More or Less’ presented by mathematician Tim Harford. (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p093hcr3) One of his programmes was too good this week, I actually kept listening until the end without snoozing at all.  The programme told the story about how ants find food and how the way they react can also be seen in our behaviour when recommending TV shows, films and even restaurants and pubs.  

It appears that ants use pheromones the way we use reviews or recommend things to our friends family or contacts on social media.

If an ant finds a good food source it will lay down a track of pheromones on its way back to the nest.  The stronger the pheromone trail left the more ants will find that trail.  They in turn go to the food source and lay their own trial.  The more ants travel the stronger the trail gets, that leads to even  more ants traveling along that trail to get the food.  As the food runs out the ants leave less pheromones, fewer ants pick up the scent and eventually the trail grows colder although some ants still carry on almost out of habit.

In the same way this week its been impossible not to see or hear people talking about a show like ‘The Pembrokeshire Murders’.  The TV reviewers were the lead ants giving it great reviews which led to people watching who then started talking about it on their social media like Facebook and twitter.  By Thursday night I thought I’d better get up to speed and so I binge watched all 3 episodes back to back.  Of course, then I started telling everyone how good it was and in effect I was just like that one of those ants laying down a ‘pheromone review trail’ to the show.

David Sumpter, the guest mathematician on ‘More or Less‘ has written a book on the Ten Equations That Rule the World and he says some of the algorithms in nature, like the way ants find food, have been taken up by companies like YouTube in deciding what videos we want to see.  It seems that the actual quality of the food the ants find isn’t as important as the trail or review, or comments that the pheromone trail leaves behind. In the same way YouTube and Spotify use the reviews and comments on videos to make them even more successful.

There was another thought from the programme.  Sometimes ants get so used to a pheromone trail that they keep going to the same source of food as a matter of habit. David Sumpter likened their actions to the way we go to the same café or restaurant or pub we always do, because we always have.

Tim Harford asked him the question what happens if there is a massive change in the ant’s circumstances, if there is a massive disturbance in their foraging environment.  Sumpter said when the old pheromone trails are destroyed the ants have to find new ways of doing things and they don’t necessarily go back to their old ways.

He then applied the same algorithm to us.  Over the last year so many of our normal pheromone trails have been destroyed.  For many of us our old normal has gone.  It’s been nearly a year since I last went to a radio, TV or recording studio but that hasn’t stopped me making radio programmes, a TV shows or a record. 

For the past 8 months I have broadcast my radio shows from home.  This week I recorded 2 different video podcasts without walking out of my front door.  We have zoom and skype and facetime and they have now become part of our everyday lives, and I mean everyone’s everyday life. 

I’ve been wanting to record a new Esme on Football podcast with Esme Allchurch.  I used to go around to her house with a couple of bags of gear and lights.  This week we used Zoom.  I set up my side of things and phoned Esme.  She then told me exactly what she needed from me to make the connection work.  She was an old hand with the technology because for the last 8 months she had used the new technology with various different groups from Church to family who she spoke to regularly using her iPad.


We have found new ways to operate and we really have to start to wonder if we will ever go back to the old ways. Even if the studios open again, the old pubs and café’s or cinemas, maybe we won’t act the way we used to act. We have found new ways to do our banking, shopping and organise our lives. I’m sure there are lots of things we will miss from the old days, but the truth is the world moved on at light speed in 2020 and the quicker we get on the new pheromone trail the easier handling the future will be for all of us.

Oh, and by the way ‘the Pembrokeshire Murders’ is brilliant!