We investigate a type of bistability occurring in population systems where noise not only causes transitions between stable states, but also constructs the states themselves. We focus on the experimentally well-studied system of ants choosing between two food sources to illustrate the essential points, but the ideas are more general. The mean time for switching between the two bistable states of the system is calculated. This suggests a procedure for estimating, in a real system, the critical population size above which bistability ceases to occur. © 2014 American Physical Society.