Plenty of kids play in dirt and collect bugs. Maybe you used to bring home bugs in a jar. Maybe you still do. Deby Cassill does. But, she’s the Associate Professor of biology at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
So, she spends her days getting a microscopic look at something many of us consider a pest and even something to step on.
She says there was a time when it was considered strange for her to play with bugs.
"As a young person, I had two brothers, they got the guns, they got to go hunting, I got the dolls. This was back in the 50’s. So I would take my dolls to the garden and I got fascinated with bugs."
Specifically, ants. Some of her students have even taken to calling her the "ant whisperer." Cassill’s not spending her days torturing them with a magnifying glass. She now has five university degrees with her name on them but her latest, a degree in biology is her current passion.
But, still, when we think about ants we think we can’t possibly have anything in common with these tiny insects. Can we?
"There are ants doing work, organizing things. To me it’s like standing on a tall building look down at humans, and if I were looking at the car pattern, the pedestrian pattern, and I were an alien looking down on them, I would think, well, these are really simplistic organisms," she says. "It’s only when you get closer that you see there are differences."
But Cassill found out they are much more complicated than that. Look closely for days on end and you might discover some near-human characteristics.
Ants have emotions, they have personalities and moods. They sleep, workers two to four hours a day and the queen 9-10 hours a day.
So royalty gets more sleep than we do. No surprise there. But what else can they tell us that benefits our everyday lives? Well Cassill says there is a lot more royal intrigue going on here and it has something to tell us about social inequality.
The queen’s fertile sons and daughters are about five times the size of a worker ant and require a lot more food. And that can become a problem.
"If the queen’s fertile sons and daughters fail to leave to begin their own colony – because they are so large and healthy, they become a huge liability. So the queen orders their deaths – by workers," she says.
And this way the queen can insure her and the colony’s survival by executing these overly dependent and complacent offspring.
It’s the royals, it’s the masses, it’s inequality. It’s the haves vs the have-nots. And it’s an exciting system to study
And Cassill has been able to draw parallels between the structure of ant colonies and businesses. For example, she scoops up a handful of fire ants from a plastic storage container to show how they react to a serious disturbance. She makes sure to wear protective rubber gloves.
Then she gathers them into a ball about the size of a golf ball and tosses them in the air over and over again. She says this small ball contains about ten thousand ants. But none of them leave the cluster and go flying across the room. They stay intact in that ball. As soon as she sets them down they scatter into thousands of tiny dots, just as you would expect ants to do. But, they survive this crisis by grabbing onto each other and locking together.
" Even though they are tiny their ability to communicate and to accomplish a job is very similar to how humans do that. So I have compared colonies to corporations in this way," she says. "A queen by herself won’t survive and the masses by themselves won’t survive. But together the CEO (queen) and the masses do better. By themselves, queen and worker survival rates drop dramatically."
Cassill points out that drought, fires and other natural disruptions are to an ant colony what an economic downturn is to a business. She says that companies can learn from how queens take care of their workers.
"When the economy improves they have the skill set to come back and grow that corporation and bring additional profits."
Such insights and her enthusiasm for her subject have made Cassill a favorite with the university students she teaches. She says her studies of ants and other creatures covers her students favorite subjects.
"We are going to study food and sex, and what’s not to love about either of those? I mean, that covers it all."
If you’re interested there are still a few seats remaining for Cassill’s spring biology class.
Just watch where you step.