Wednesday arrived without fanfare but soon revealed itself to be momentous for the ant colony.

A human family had spread out a blanket, covering it with sandwiches, chips, chocolate-covered pretzels and a refreshing fruit plate. One of the ants posted a photo of the picnic to Facebook with the caption “HUMAN HAVING A PICNIC WHAT DO WE DO.” Soon, more than 2,700 fellow hive members posted commands: “STEAL,” “INVADE,” “BRING TO THE QUEEN.” Presumably, Her Majesty enjoyed quite the feast that evening.

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 (human) 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 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 might actually 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 massive multiplayer online role-playing games. She pointed to social identity theory, which, boiled down to its most basic level, suggests that “when we belong to groups, we feel better” — no matter what kind of group that is.

Tyrese Childs certainly didn’t have any psychological theories in mind when he started the group when 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 I,” Childs said. When mulling the idea over, 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. And everyone knows you just don’t do that. Childs decided it was time to return to the colony.

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.

During quarantine, “people were just so sick of scrolling through the same social media every day. They were out looking for something different, and we just happened to be found,” Childs said. “I think people are really into escapism right now. We try to watch Netflix to take our minds off of what’s happening in the media and in the world. … In the group, you don’t have to be yourself. You don’t have to worry about the problems in your daily life. You sit down, be ant for 20 minutes. It gives you a little bit of serotonin, and you’re back on your game.”

“It’s also such a healthy community,” an anomaly on social media, he suggested. Aside from the whole Ant-Kevin episode, “you don’t have to worry about ant drama. There’s none of that.”

Dupuis said it’s not surprising the group exploded during the early months of 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, adding that “we don’t do it on a conscious level.”

The group has now reached the point where Michael Melcher and 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,” Melcher said. “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.”

“There are a lot of misconceptions people carry in, based on what little information or assumptions (group members) made about social insects in general,” Baudier said. “And those are worth talking about. It tells us something about our society.”

Many group members, for example, long referred to the various ants with male pronouns, but Baudier points out that “ants are really all about the ladies.” Worker ants in reality are female, so when group members referred to them as male, they “reinforced this idea of males being the ones that work,” she said. “I feel like that stems from some interesting baggage we have with our own human cultural society in the United States.”

Some members responded to this misconception with small comic strips in which the worker ants had long eyelashes and were referred to as “she.” Soon enough, members of the hive were using the right pronouns. The group, Baudier said, provides an “interesting exercise in how we can pitch our science to be more entertaining or accessible.”

Childs is awed by how his community has grown — and has continued to regulate itself. Ants make posts. Melcher and the other moderators approve them. And picnickers continue to run in fear.

“It’s just mind-boggling that something I brought into this world as a joke could become something so meaningful to so many people,” Childs said.

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