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What Caught My Eye: Counting Ants Adds Up to Numerical Nuttiness

A series of weekly outside-the-box news stories and the lessons they hold for recruiters, by TAtech CEO Peter Weddle.

How many ants live on Earth? Scientists finally have an answer | Science | AAAS

We live in a numerical age. We count the number of threads in our sheets, the number of megabytes our mobile devices can handle, and the number of followers our friends and celebrities have on TikTok. We are, in short, mad for metrics.

And now, that devotion to digits has been taken to new heights. According to recent news reports, not 1, not 2, but 6 researchers have invested the time and effort to count … wait for it – ta-dah, ants. These hardy investigators actually read through 12,000 reports from around the world to identify and assess 489 scientifically credible studies, all with the goal of determining the ant population on Earth.

In the process, they discovered that ants live just about everywhere, but are most prevalent in savannas and moist forests as well as in the tropics. Despite that geographic dispersion, however, they live and work exactly as their cousins do everywhere else on Earth, including in my backyard. They move dirt, distribute seeds and haul away the sandwich crumbs and cookie bits the kids have dropped.

So, what number did these intrepid researchers come up with? They have concluded that there are 20 quadrillion ants on the planet. That’s 20 followed by 15 zeros worth of the little creatures. Somehow, they also figured out that those 20 quadrillion ants weigh in at the equivalent of 12 million tons of biomass. More relevant to those of us who have to chase the pests out of the kitchen, that 20 quadrillion estimate means the task may be futile as there are 2,500,000 billion of them for every human on earth.

This finding is apparently big news. According to the team’s report in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – yes, the work was deemed important enough to be published in a highly regarded scientific journal – the estimate is 2-to-20 times higher than previous counts and, the authors argued more accurate. Why? Because the estimate was based on – what else – other studies that had actually counted ants in many places around the world.

What can recruiters learn from this analysis?

The talent acquisition profession has always been big on counting. Recruiters have used metrics to assess and improve their own performance and to prove to hiring managers and the c-suite that they were delivering the beef. Time-to-fill and quality-of-hire spring to mind, of course, but others such as cost-per-hire, offer acceptance rate and first-year attrition also get a lot of use.

Historically, collecting the data and crunching and analyzing the numbers was a lengthy and laborious process, but thanks to the increased availability of automated data collection systems and integrated dashboards, much of that inefficiency has been eliminated. Recruiters in many organizations now have real time access to the outcomes they’re achieving and to the key performance indicators they’re hitting (or not). In short, they know exactly how they’re doing and what (if any problems) need to be fixed.

All of that effective and efficient counting, however, has itself created a problem for recruiters. They’re in danger of being overwhelmed by all of the incoming data. According to a recent research report by Aspect 43, most employers will have a combination of 8-20 different products in their tech stack, each of which is trying to be helpful by generating measures of output or performance. In addition, Aspect 43 also found that “Nearly every organization surveyed in our 2022 Insights at Work study planned to buy at least one talent acquisition technology this year.”

So, what happens? Stuff gets counted and the numbers get ignored because recruiters don’t have time to sift through them all and figure out what they mean. Or, stuff gets counted and reqs get ignored because recruiters are so consumed by looking at the numbers there’s no time for anything else. If you’re a researcher with nothing better to do than counting ants, I suppose either of those would be okay, but if you live in the real world, that’s numerical nuttiness.

Now, don’t misunderstand, I firmly believe in the importance of data and analysis in talent acquisition. What I am suggesting, however, is that counting – even with the best of intentions – can become nonsensical. There may come a time when recruiting teams have data scientists on staff to rationalize all of the incoming counts and organize them into a coherent portrait of operations, but until then, a strategy that will preserve numerical sanity would be appropriate. To capture the upside potential of their measurement capabilities, recruiting teams should prioritize what gets counted by all of the constituent systems in their tech stack and focus on those counts that will truly make a meaningful difference in their performance.

Food for Thought,

Peter Weddle is the author or editor of over two dozen books and a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the founder and CEO of TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions. You can download his latest book – The Neonaissance – FOR FREE at And, if you don't have time to read the entire book, just download a short excerpt of his inspirational message.