By Marc Gilson
“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” —- Lewis Thomas
I live in a condo in a scenic suburb west of Portland, Oregon. It’s a quiet, attractive neighborhood, with lots of tall pine trees, creeks, and miles of walking trails. There are birds of several varieties, including osprey, and owls that hoot outside my window many nights. Occasionally deer will be spotted roaming through backyards, coyotes prowl through the shrubbery in the dark of night, and plenty of squirrels and raccoons liven up the place considerably.
But lately I’ve run into a different species of critter I’m far less enthused about having around: ants.
Here’s the scenario: I come home from a long day at the office, drop my jacket and laptop in the chair and flip on the light in the kitchen where I place my keys and mail. As the light comes on, I notice movement on the counter top or floor: Tiny black ants, silently skittering their way along the ceiling, down the wall, and onto the counter. They seem to be everywhere at once. And they don’t appear too concerned with my obvious dislike of them.
My reaction to this is a combination of irritation and exasperation, as this has become far too routine. In such moments, I’ve been known to slam the mail on the counter and swear. @!*%@# ANTS!!!!
There are lots of species of ants, but the ones invading my home are known as “Odorous House Ants.” (What most people think of as “sugar ants” are actually Odorous House Ants). They’re extremely common and if you live anywhere north of the equator you’re probably within a few feet of an ant nest or two even as you sit there reading this. They’re everywhere, all the time, winter and summer. They can nest in rocks, wood, concrete, or probably lava. Of the few places on the planet you won’t find them is at elevations above 11,000 feet or maybe Antarctica. Otherwise, their colonies and supercolonies (which are multiple colonies linked to one another by elaborate tunnel systems) are ubiquitous.
They get their unappealing name because when you crush one of them they emit a slight odor, sometimes compared to a stale coconut. And it’s true! They do vaguely smell like the tube of off-brand suntan oil I’ve had sitting in the bottom of my drawer since about 1988, when you crush them, anyway. Which, truth be told, I do.
Now let me mention that I have trained as a Buddhist. Not a full-fledged, shaved-head, robe-sporting Buddhist. But I am quite familiar with the doctrine of “ahimsa;” the Sanskrit term meaning “do no harm,” and I am generally against inflicting pain and suffering on other living things. I was raised as a Christian, and while Jesus did upend the tables of the money changers who were turning the local church into a strip mall, I don’t recall him being very clear on doctrines pertaining to violence against ants.
Either way, while I’m not terribly squeamish about death in general, I don’t really like being the guy doing the killing. But when it comes to ants, I’m sorry to admit that the whole “do no harm” thing basically goes out the window and I tend to approach the ants much in the same manner Godzilla deals with Tokyo architecture: I squash them flat.
Yes, I do have some ant killing spray. But I don’t like using it in the kitchen, and I feel that if I have to end their little lives, better to be quick about it than coat them in chemicals as they stagger toward their demise. Not how I would want to go, anyway. Chemical weapons really aren’t my forte. So, I take a more direct approach and squash them with a paper towel, magazine, whatever’s within reach. Sometimes, yes, I do squash them with my BARE HANDS! Hopefully you won’t judge me for that, but if you need to, knock yourself out.
Now before you decide that I’m overreacting to all this, I’m fully aware that a minor ant problem is nothing to get too worked up about. What with the economy’s ups and downs, the wars, the environmental concerns, and whatever Lady Gaga has been up to lately, a few hundred ants running through my condo is, well, no big deal. Ant infestations like mine are pretty common. I’ve seen ants in people’s homes before, and it never really disturbed me much.
But now they’re in MY house, in MY kitchen, crawling on MY coffee maker and on MY silverware, and it’s more than I’m willing to tolerate. I used to think that if you had ants in your house, you probably were slacking on the housecleaning. But I take back that judgment, as I’m pretty much a neat freak, and it hasn’t deterred the ants at all. I have numerous faults but messiness isn’t one of them. I’m…what’s the word my ex-wife used?…oh yeah, “fastidious.”
I clean all the time. The kitchen sink is not a storage bin for dirty dishes. The countertop isn’t a place to leave the remnants of your snacks. Bathrooms should sparkle, toilets should gleam, and you should be able to walk around barefoot without things sticking to your feet. One of the things I like about living alone is that I can clean up the place the way I want to. If I decide that the stairs could use a vacuuming, even at midnight, well that’s what they get, dammit. I stink at keeping my laundry folded, but aside from that, I’m too much Felix, not enough Oscar. Yet the ants scoff at my cleaning skills and find their way into my cupboards. How do they do it?
Any kid who’s eaten his lunch outside on a nice summer day will tell you that ants love crumbs and can smell them from the next county. Ants have a sophisticated system of communication based on chemical scent that allows a single ant to get the word out about the latest buffet on your kitchen counter to a colony of around 10,000 ants within five to ten minutes. That is some serious networking. Ants can organize a party around a donut crumb faster than AIG can spend federal bailout money. This is the kind of organization and relentless devotion to a cause that scares me. They’re fanatics, these guys. And have I mentioned that they’re in my kitchen right now?
While I’ve been complaining about my little infestation a lot lately, I have to admit that in the past few days, my attitude toward the ants has softened a little. It’s partly because I watched a nature documentary on television about them the other night. I’m kind of a nerd for such shows, and I admit that much of what I know about animals is thanks to television shows like Nature, Nova, and pretty much anything on the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. I think it might have led to some misunderstandings about how the animal kingdom works. For example, I’m inclined to believe that when cheetahs run after a gazelle, they somehow do it in slow motion.
The TV show in question focused on what they called “Killer Ants,” complete with dramatic CGI renderings of ferocious looking ants sporting massive chomping mandibles, hairy angular legs, and lifeless bug eyes seemingly focused on nothing but opening up one of your veins. The narrator spoke in deep, ominous tones about these “remorseless killers” inhabiting the warmer, wetter climates of our planet.
Of the many ant species discussed in the show was the “Army Ant,” or “Siafu,” the legendary insect predators found mainly in Africa and South America. Renown for their aggressive raiding tactics, they strike en masse, and have been known to act like piranhas, swarming around prey many times their size and essentially relieving them of their flesh in a matter of minutes. Although it’s a dubious claim, they are rumored to have killed humans, leaving little more than a surprised-looking skeleton behind.
Unlike most ant species, Siafu are often on the move, transporting their nests from one location to another in search of new food sources in a sophisticated logistical process any modern human army would envy. They basically move in, eat anything that gets in their way, and then move on to the next buffet. This relocation process is even more impressive when you realize that colonies can sometime reach nearly 20 million individuals. That’s a little like all the residents of both New York and Tokyo suddenly evacuating and relocating somewhere else in a few hours’ time.
They accomplish this feat thanks to the highly specialized ways in which different kinds of ants perform their tasks. Each ant has its own job and somehow knows just what to do and when to do it. This is not, apparently, due to individual talent or ambition as much as simple biosocial necessity. If some of the ants suddenly decided to slack off and not do their jobs, they wouldn’t get fired, they’d get killed. You won’t find ants taking smoke breaks or surfing the internet when they’re on the clock. And they’re always on the clock. All actions performed by any one individual are for the greater good of the colony and Siafu queen (who, by the way, has her own team of body guard ants who, like Secret Service agents, will use deadly force to protect her, sacrificing their own lives if necessary). And they are frighteningly efficient in their ceaseless quest for sustenance.
A single colony of Siafu can kill and consume up to 100,000 animals and insects per day, including other ants, snakes, beetles, spiders, scorpions, chickens, pigs, and goats. Yes, I said chickens, pigs, and goats. These guys don’t fool around. If they can catch it, they’ll kill it.
They can climb trees and invade bird’s nests, bridge creeks with their own bodies, dig into spider burrows, surround a fleeing snake, and outrun a scorpion. Almost makes you feel sorry for the other creepy-crawlies, doesn’t it?
Imagine this: you’re a snake in the jungle. Oh sure, you’re venomous and quick-striking. But you’re pretty laid-back too. Minding your own business. Waiting for a nice tender mouse or frog to carelessly wander within striking distance. Life ain’t bad. Suddenly, you sense a vibration in the ground, like a sizzle, getting louder, moving closer. You can’t locate the exact location from which this sizzle is coming, but you know it’s closing in by the second. The jungle, calm a moment ago, seems as though it’s coming to a boil. Maybe it’s lunch!
Looking around, you see a reddish black wave come rolling over the foliage like a tsunami of certain death. It’s not lunch. You are. Oh, you can try to slither away. Or you can turn to face the onslaught. It really doesn’t matter though. Three minutes later, you’re nothing but a snaky memory.
Another ant species discussed on the show is the Paraponera, or Bullet Ants. Bullet Ants are famous for one main reason: they inflict the most agonizingly painful sting in the insect world, rivaling even that of the horrifically named Tarantula Hawk Wasp (a wasp so ornery it preys on tarantulas). Rather large in ant terms, Bullet Ants are about an inch in length and often nest at the base of trees where, unlike the Siafu, they basically keep to themselves. They’re not overly aggressive when left alone. Disturb their nest, though, and expect your day to take a downturn.
Recipients of a Bullet Ant sting can look forward to 10 to 20 hours of intense, burning pain, severe nausea, vomiting, uncontrollable shaking, concentration problems, and temporary paralysis. People who have experienced the sting say that the Bullet Ant is aptly named; it feels like getting shot, and the pain ranks as a 4+ on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index – the highest rank on the index. The pain itself is described as “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3 inch rusty nail grinding into your heel.” Other than that it’s no big deal.
You can’t mention the Bullet Ant without also mentioning the Satere-Mawe people of Brazil, who get my vote for having one of the most sadistic rite of passage rituals around. In order to qualify as a warrior and adult male you must pass the ant glove initiation. Here’s how it goes: First, hundreds of Bullet Ants are sedated, and then carefully woven into a grass glove that looks like a big oven mitt. Then, the lucky lad puts the glove on and waits for the ants to come out of their stupor, at which time they begin to sting him repeatedly. His goal is to make it ten full minutes without giving up, whimpering, losing his mind, or dying.
If he makes it, he’s treated to a huge feast! Just kidding. If he makes it, he most likely spends the next few days convulsing, in and out of consciousness, unable to eat or drink, partially paralyzed and hallucinating from the pain. Even more remarkable (or insane, depending on your perspective) Satere-Mawe males undergo this ordeal up to 20 times.
Besides Army Ants and Bullet Ants, I could also tell you about the Dracula Ants of Madagascar that are good at killing their victims by sucking all their blood. Or the Gliding Ants of South America that can drop from trees and land on an unsuspecting head. Or how about the Tree Ants, who set elaborate traps for their prey. When another insect is caught in the trap, the Tree Ants emerge from their hiding place and proceed to remove its legs. Once drawn and quartered, the immobilized victim is then dragged back to the nest for dinner, and not as a guest.
Suddenly, my little Odorous House Ants seem like cute, snuggly pets by comparison. Maybe I shouldn’t be quite so hard on the little critters!
While the ant world can be a truly frightening one, I have to admit that I’ve become fascinated by the social structure, diversity, and behavior of ants. With that said, I do have to mention one other influence in my changing attitude toward the ants: Edward O. Wilson, a noted biologist and one of the most famous myrmecologists in the world.
As everybody knows, myrmecology is the branch of entomology concerned with the study of ants. For more on this, you might want to consider subscribing to the Myrmecological News, an international, independent, non-profit journal dedicated to ant research. I hear the centerfolds are airbrushed, but otherwise, it’s a fine publication.
Anyway, E. O. Wilson really deserves a blog post to himself because of his genius and influence in areas of life far beyond that of ants. But for now, I’m discussing him because he exemplifies something – a character trait I guess you could say – that I not only admire, but aspire to embody: the dauntless, insatiable curiosity that shows up in him as a kind of childlike wonder about the world.
Wilson is, arguably, one of the most brilliant and accomplished biologists of the 20th century. He’s a researcher, theorist, lecturer, author, naturalist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, environmentalist, and he’s blind in one eye.
Wilson’s work with ants has given rise to his occasionally controversial views on social biology; the idea that behavior (such as that of ants as well as humans) has a biological or genetic basis. Ants, of course, are prime examples of social creatures – not in the “let’s meet at Starbucks and talk about how work sucks,” social sense, but in the way that ants organize and run their colonies with such precision and responsiveness that Wilson himself has suggested that ants may possess true “group consciousness;” the colony acting like one large brain made up of individual neurons. The importance of ants, and insects in general, goes well beyond interesting social models for Wilson, as he emphasizes here:
“If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Science reporter Robert Krulwich recently interviewed Wilson at the 92nd street YMCA in New York City. When asked about how he became interested in bugs, Wilson told Krulwich, “Every kid has a bug period, but I never grew out of mine.” This fascination with insects eventually earned him his second of two Pulitzers, as well as his nickname: “Bugs.”
Wilson went on to tell Krulwich how his work with ants helped explain many of the mysteries of ant behavior and social organization, including how ants use scent trails to locate food, and how their individual biology gives rise to their highly organized colonies. Wilson makes it clear that while science can appear complex and daunting to the layperson, the reality is that most of the best work of science is simply driven by good old-fashioned curiosity and determination. He was compelled to discover the way ant scent trails work simply by noticing how ants drag their abdomens along the ground, and decided to get to the bottom of it. “Believe me, folks,” he says, “this is how science works. It really is simple-minded.”
So, armed with little more than some common dissecting tools, a microscope, and a hungry mind, Wilson managed to unravel one of the most compelling mysteries of the insect world. He observed ant behavior in detail and even painstakingly dissected ants, removing their impossibly tiny organs and brains for examination. What he found was that the abdomen-dragging behavior was the ant’s way of leaving a scent trail indicating just what the ant was up to. If the ant comes across food, the scent trail changes and ants hear (or smell) the dinner bell ringing. A simple revelation, but one that no one had every adequately documented or explained, and one that ultimately changed many aspects of entomology and biology. All of this happened simply because E. O. Wilson decided to find out how ants did what they did and all of it motivated by little more than a childlike curiosity. “There is no better high,” he says with a smile, “than discovery.”
I think about E. O. Wilson now, as a lone ant crawls across my laptop screen in search of some invisible late night snack. He’s a scout. And if he finds something tasty on my table or floor, the word will go out, and a tiny black hoard will converge on some microscopic table scrap I missed while cleaning up.
What an amazing creature, an ant. Perhaps not sentient or self-aware. Perhaps only a kind of biological robot, carrying out a set of pre-programmed instructions on behalf of the colony. They’re certainly not very cuddly. To most of us, nothing more than a meaningless, squashable bug. But to people like E. O. Wilson, ants are things of almost endless fascination, and studying them has led to some of the most important discoveries ever made in science. And that such a creature – the result of millions of years of uninterrupted evolutionary adaptation that has made this ant and his kind more vital to Earth’s health than human beings – is now running along the edge of my table gives me pause. That so much mystery and biological history can be wrapped up in something so fragile and tiny is – I’ll just say it – a kind of miracle.
I can’t promise you that I won’t cease my attempts to keep the ants out of my home. I won’t even lie about the fact that I’ll probably still squash a few here and there when they get too close to my sandwich. But this one ant, at least, can go about his business in peace tonight, and continue doing his job without interference from me. I think I’ll just watch him for awhile, and try to imagine what it would be like to be an ant, and marvel at one of life’s tiniest wonders. I hope “Bugs” Wilson would approve.