I'm looking to translate "The ant labors for the good of the nest", or to rephrase, "The ant works for the benefit of the nest/hive/colony". So far I've come up with:

formica laborat ad bonum nidi

I chose "nidus" = nest, not knowing what word the Romans used for an ant dwelling. Hive, perhaps? Surely not Colony? Does anyone have insight as to the correct word usage?

Also, is this a correct usage of "ad" in the accusative case?

Someone suggested "Formica pro bono nidi operatur/laborat".

My questions are:

  1. Is there a difference between "ad bonum" and "pro bono";

  2. Is there a difference in meaning between "laboro" and "opero"?

Thanks for any help.

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    Varro used colonia for bee colonies, so there's precedent for extending it to industrious insects. Nidus strikes me as weird.
    – Cairnarvon
    Sep 7, 2022 at 17:24
  • According to Köbler, all three: formicarius, formicaria, formicarium can be used for an ant nest/hill. Formicarius (ant hill) is also the title of an incunable (read it here); according to Wikipedia an allusion to Proverbs 6:6, where sadly it only says Vade ad formicam, o piger, et considera vias ejus, et disce sapientiam. Sep 7, 2022 at 19:39
  • … but none of these is classical, of course! Sep 7, 2022 at 19:43
  • Those were all helpful. Does anyone find fault with: laborat formica ad bonum coloniae
    – Caw
    Sep 8, 2022 at 3:51
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    @Caw That will be understood, but I think it could be made more idiomatic. See my answer. (By the way, this was a very nice question. I hope you'll stick around and ask more!)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Sep 9, 2022 at 14:40

2 Answers 2


As Cairnarvon points out in a comment, Varro uses colonia for a bee hive, so extending it to other similarly behaving insects makes sense. This is a choice of words that a Roman would easily understand. A word derived from formica would strike me as a bit odd, given that the word formica itself is used; a mere colonia is clear enough.

I would translate "for the good of" simply as pro. The entry in L&S for this preposition mentions the meaning "for the benefit of" under II.B.1. I think that lengthier versions would deliver the same message but in a manner that feels somewhat less idiomatic to me.

For the verb both laborare and operari make sense. The latter is described as "to toil" or "to take pains" instead of a neutral "to work", and one of the examples given is of bees working. I will therefore have to suggest operari. (The non-deponent operare is rarer and not classical.)

Thus my suggestion would be:

Formica pro colonia operatur.

  • 1
    Your suggestions were most helpful. I have decided to use Formica Pro Bono Coloniae Laborat, for these reasons: since the ant represents me myself, I feel justified in using pro bono rather than what might be the more technically correct pro uso; Laborat rather than operatur for the menial slave-labor connotation; and pro bono rather than just pro so that it doesn't read like merely "for the colony". Thanks to all for your comments and please forgive my boorish formatting.
    – Caw
    Sep 11, 2022 at 2:48
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    @Caw I'm glad to have been able to help! If you think the matter is settled, please accept one of the answers. That marks it as correct or most useful and indicates that the case is closed. (You can accept an answer using the little green checkmark near the upper left corner. There you can also vote. Please vote up any posts you like, including other questions and their answers!)
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Sep 11, 2022 at 5:49

An anthill is technically either a formicatrix or a formicetum, and the colony or community of ants is the formicarium. However, in this situation we want to use colloquial or poetic terms, not technical terms. The common person's word for an anthill in general is the caverna formicosa and for the hillock of the anthill, the word grumulus is used. The poetic word for a hive is alvus or alveus, however, this word is more used for the structure of the hive, not the insect community. I think the use of the word nidus is ok in this context, but we could also use alveus, but grumulus would be my choice for something homey and motto-like.

Concerning work, you would not use the word laboro, because this implies brute or menial labor. When Romans talk about working hard, they use the word contendo. So, you can say labore contendit.

Concerning the advantage to the nest, the typical word, especially for an animal would be commoditas. However, when we talk about an animal working for the benefit of something, it would be better to use the expression opere efficior. So, altogether, this how I would say it to convey a homespun or moralistic tone:

Formica ad usum grumuli opere efficitur.

Concerning your proposed rendering (laborat formica ad bonum coloniae)... You could certainly write this and a Roman would know what you meant, but it would sound very awkward and barbaric. Kind of like the way Borat says "Make benefit glorious nation of Kazakhstan!" We know what he means, but we can tell he is a foreigner just translating foreign expressions into English word for word.

First laboro means to toil like a slave or prisoner. You would not normally use that word for a citizen. It does not have a positive connotation. Romans did not have the same kind of work ethic that Americans do. Secondly, ad is a preposition of position or motion. You would say pro bono for benefitting someone, as in pro bono publico (for the public good). However, this expression is used for people, not animals. People have bonum, animals have usum. The use of the word coloniae is ok as you have it.

  • 1
    What do you mean by people having bonum and animals having usum? I recall seeing both have both and the two words meaning different things (roughly: benefit and use).
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Sep 8, 2022 at 14:13
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta It would be odd to the Roman ear to describe an animal as doing something pro bono. For example, when Cicero talks about good works by animals he writes, "...[equi boves etc ] quarum opere efficitur aliquid ad usum hominum atque vitam..." (De Officiis). Also, as I wrote in my answer, the word commoditas (convenience) is used of animals often. Sep 8, 2022 at 15:05
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    “An anthill is technically either a formicatrix” ← sometimes I think you must be some sort of parody account. Sep 8, 2022 at 18:14
  • Regarding laboro, the "toiling like a slave" aspect is exactly what I was going for. So, if I replace bonum with usum and rearrange it as SOV it might hopefully take away some of the Borat-ishness: formica pro uso nidi laborat. And thank you for the detailed comments, they have been most interesting and helpful.
    – Caw
    Sep 9, 2022 at 5:44

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