Latin name: Formica
Other names: Foranis, Formi, Furmi

Ants harvest grain to store for the winter

General Attributes

Ants are said to have these characteristics: they walk in order like soldiers; they carry grains in their mouths, and an ant with no grain will not try to take the grain from one which has it; they break each grain in half to keep it from germinating when it rains, because if it does the ants will starve in the winter; when it is time to harvest the grain, they go into the fields and climb up to the grain, where they distinguish wheat from barley by its smell and reject the barley because it is food for cattle.

Some Physiologus versions tell of the gold-digging ants of Ethiopia, which are the size of dogs. These ants dig up gold from sand with their feet and guard it, chasing down and killing any who try to steal it. It is said that people safely steal the ant's gold by separating mares from their foals, with a river between them. The mares, carrying packs, are driven to the side of the river inhabited by the ants; the ants, seeing the packs as a good place to hide their gold, fill them with the golden sand. When the mares swim back to their foals on the other side of the river, the ants cannot follow.


The ants working together for the common good is to be taken as a lesson to men, who should work in unity.

The splitting of the grain represents the separation that must be made in the interpretation of the Bible, distinguishing the literal from the spiritual meaning, "lest the law interpreted literally should kill you". Some sources compare the ants to the Jews, who have taken the law literally and have "died of hunger".

The barley the ants reject signifies the heresy that Christians are to cast away.


The bestiary illustrations of ants are almost always poor, showing merely a series of dots or bean-shaped objects with legs.


Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 11, 36): Ants are strong creatures, able to carry immense loads proportional to their size; they carry smaller loads with their mouths and push larger loads with their shoulders. They share their labor, have a system of government, and possess memory and diligence. They bite the seeds they gather before they store them, to keep them from sprouting; they split larger seeds to fit them in; if seeds become wet from rain they bring them out to dry. They work constantly, even at night if there is a full moon; their travels form paths and wear down rocks. Ants are the only creatures besides man to bury their dead. In the Dardae region of Indian are ants colored like cats but the size of Egyptian wolves, that carry gold out of caves in the earth. This gold, which is dug out in the winter, the Indians steal in the summer when the ants stay in their burrows because of the heat; but even then the the ants are ferocious in defence of their gold, flying out and stinging the men even as they retreat on fast camels.

Aelianus [170-230 CE] (On the Characteristics of Animals, Book 2, chapter 25): In the summertime when the harvest is in and the corn is being threshed on the threshing-floor, Ants assemble in companies, going in single file or two abreast - indeed they sometimes go three abreast - after quitting their homes and customary shelters. Then they pick out some of the barley and the wheat and all follow the same track. And some go to collect the grain, others carry the load, and they get out of each other's way with the utmost deference and consideration, especially those that are not laden for the benefit of those that are. Then they return to their dwellings and fill the pits in their store-chamber after boring through the middle of each grain. What falls out becomes the ant's meal at the time; what is left is infertile. This is a device on the part of these excellent and thrifty housekeepers to prevent the intact grain from putting out shoots and sprouting afresh when the rains have surrounded them, and to preserve themselves in that case from falling victims during the winter to want of food and to famine, and their zeal from being blunted. It is to Nature then that ants too owe these and other fortunate gifts. [Book 3, chapter 4] The ants of India which guard the gold will not cross the river Campylinus. [Book 4, chapter 43] Here are more facts that I have learned touching ants. So indefatigable, so ready to work are they, without making excuses, without any base plea for release, without alleging reasons that are a cloak for indolence, that not even at night when the moon is full do they remain idle and take holiday, but stick to their occupation. - [Scholfield translation]

Saint Ambrose [4th century CE] (Hexameron, Book 6, chapter 4.16): The ant is a tiny animal, yet she ventures to achieve things beyond her strength. She is not driven to labor as a slave is. Rather, without compulsion and with freedom of foresight, she lays up provision for a future day. ... She has no land under cultivation. Yet, without a taskmaster to urge her on as she looks after her stock of food, what a harvest has she in store for herself a harvest gathered from the results of your labors! [Book 6, chapter 4.20] Ants also keep watch for the coming of sunny weather. When they notice that their store of food remains soggy because of rain storms, a careful exploration is made of atmospheric conditions to determine when a series of warm days should arrive. Then they release the food supply, which is carried out of their hiding places to be dried by prolonged exposure to the sun. For that reason you will never experience stormy weather during that whole period of time, except when it should, in the interval, happen that the ants have changed their minds and decided to restore their supply of food to their granaries. - [Savage translation, 1961]

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 3:9): The ant has its name (formica) because it carries bits (ferat micas) of grain. It prepares in the summer the food it will need in the winter; at harvest time it picks wheat but not barley. If rain wets its grain it puts it out to dry. It is said that in Ethiopia there are ants shaped like dogs which dig up grains of gold with their feet; they guard this gold so no one can steal it.