"Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species,” the renowned Harvard conservation biologist Edward O. Wilson once joked. 

Clever, yes. Accurate? Partly. Ants are well known for their division of labor, and they raise young cooperatively. Not all ants in a colony are fertile, so it truly does take a village to raise a baby ant. 

But ant societies also are extremely hierarchical, with queens, workers, and soldiers; and David Holway, a professor in the Ecology, Behavior and Evolution Section of UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences, is studying a species of ant that is, by any measure, frighteningly competitive. 

Researchers believe that Argentine ants arrived in New Orleans on a ship from Buenos Aires or Rosario around 1890. Like many so-called “invasive” species, the Argentine ants outcompeted many native species. By 1920, they had spread through the American South, becoming notorious for the damage they wreaked on sugar cane.  

Today, Argentine ants are considered “a global mega-colony” with enormous, genetically linked populations in America, Europe and Japan. Researchers report that “the extent of this population is paralleled only by human society.” In fact, as Holway points out, one reason Argentine ants are so successful is that they thrive in places inhabited by humans, another species that successfully spread over the planet. 

There are many reasons to care about ants, and practical reasons to pay attention to Argentine ants, according to Holway, who also is faculty director of UC San Diego's Natural Reserve System, stretches of protected southern California land where cutting-edge research takes place. Argentine ants damage crops, and their ability to colonize new territory is a threat to native species in California and elsewhere. 

More than 100 years ago, H.G. Wells sketched a fantasy where ants rivaled humans for control of the Earth in his 1905 short story, “Empire of the Ants.”  While that scenario remains in the realm of imagination, 100 years from now California’s landscape might look very different, thanks to the adaptability and highly organized efforts of Argentine ants.