A family had spread out a blanket, covering it with sandwiches, chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and a refreshing fruit plate. It wasn't long before a picture was posted on Facebook with the caption: "Human having a picnic. What do we do?"
Soon, more than 2,700 users had posted commands: "Steal." "Invade." "Bring to the queen."
Welcome to the private Facebook group aptly titled, "A group where we all pretend to be ants in an ant colony," in which nearly 2 million members do exactly that.
The concept is as simple as the rules. "In this group we are ants," reads the description. "We worship The Queen and do ant stuff. Welcome to the colony."
As long as you're kind, avoid politics, don't employ any hate speech or bullying, remember that your name is Ant-yourname (e.g. this reporter is Ant-Travis) and always capitalize the first letters of the words "The Queen," you'll be graciously accepted as a member — which basically means that when another "ant" posts a photo of food, or of an attacking insect, you can respond in the comments with the appropriate command, be it "lift," "eat" or "bite."
While it might seem like just another internet oddity, the group actually might be fulfilling basic human needs, especially while people are isolated during a pandemic.
"We are social animals. We have a need to belong to a group, and in this case, the group is one that doesn't have a lot of seriousness," said Erin Dupuis, a psychology professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who has studied the social benefits in playing multiplayer online role-playing games. She pointed to social identity theory, which suggests that when we belong to groups, we feel better, no matter what kind of group.
Tyrese Childs certainly didn't have any psychological theories in mind when he started the group while he was home from college in June 2019. He had seen a group where millennials and Gen Z-ers pretend to be boomers, which led him to ones where people pretend to be cows and farmers.
"The groups were all super crowded, so I thought I'd make my own for my friends and me," Childs said. He saw an anthill on the ground and inspiration struck. At first the only ants were Childs and a few dozen friends "who were like, 'This is kind of stupid, but it's pretty funny.' "
After summer, he "kind of forgot" about the group, until he logged on one day to find it had 10,000 members, many of whom were in an uproar because Ant-Kevin (real identity unknown) was attempting to stage a coup.
Childs decided it was time to return to the colony. And then came the double whammy: a viral tweet about the group and a pandemic. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people were pledging their lives to The Queen.
Dupuis said it's not surprising the group exploded during the pandemic. It's a place where the rules don't change, the actions don't change and everyone "works" together.
"Research shows when we're reminded of uncertainty, and mortality in particular, we're reminded of death and we're being reminded of death every day — we seek out groups more," she said.
The group has now reached the point where the 100-plus other administrators and moderators sift through thousands of posts, approving ones that fit the rules. They mainly have to weed out human stuff. "This group is meant to be for ants," said Michael Melcher, one of the moderators. "We're trying to keep the group pure."
While some ants might be looking for a distraction, others post research on actual ant behavior. Did you know, for example, that a large percentage of a colony doesn't actually do much work — probably acting as reserves in case of a loss of the highly active workers?
"Oftentimes, I'm struggling to get people's attention and explain why my research is something worth talking about," said Ant-Katie, also known as Katie Baudier, a postdoctoral research associate at Arizona State University who studies collective defense in social insects. "It's an awesome place for not just me but a lot of social-insect biologists."
As for Childs, he says, "It's just mind-boggling that something I brought into this world as a joke could become something so meaningful to so many people."