EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
Clomp, clomp, clomp -- thank Vespa, that sleek-looking, wasp-waisted goddess of insects, that they don’t wear combat boots or we’d never sleep. A column of tiny ants has made its way into our bedroom through the heating grate and silently marches across the floor to the bottom of a flower pot, around the pot, then along the rug where the line dissipates.
We hear not a shuffle of shoes, but march in a line they do. The mini-marchers head in one direction and then disappear. I peer at the line and realize some turn back. The string-like line is actually moving in both directions. I shift the flower pot and discover many more in and around the bottom of the pot. Maybe there is a nest in the dirt and these Gen-Xers are searching for a way out into the world.
Is it time for me to give them an assist and move the plant outdoors? Alas, this is an avocado tree I started from a pit (five months in a pot of dirt in a cold room watered only now and again) and our nights are not yet warm enough to fool the tree into thinking this is the tropics. The ants will have to wait.
Ants are peculiar creatures and have always fascinated. Ancient Greeks admired their persistent marching in formation and created a mythological army unit called Myrmidons, who were loyal to a fault, marching into battle and not flinching or stopping when one of their own fell. They star in any number of computer-generated battle flicks. Just like the unstoppable ants -- when you disrupt their onward march, the ones from behind fill in the positions created by their slain or injured comrades.
Most Formicidae, true ants, live in colonies with a queen the center of attraction and control. There is an amazing, unchanging division of labor among the hundreds of individuals in the nest. The maintenance workers maintain the intricate internal network; the patrollers patrol; the foragers forage for one and all. Soldiers are out and about, killing enemies and occasionally taking hostages back to the nest to "help out’’ with chores.
In the 18th century, ants symbolized the incredible organization of a higher power. Ants were a glory to God and were studied with the possibility of humans learning from their attributes. Some claimed that if ants took slaves, that this was natural in the animal kingdom, therefore a divine right for humans as well!
The social interaction between the different classes of antworkers is so exact, rigid and ultimately mesmerizing that Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany, once declared, "If I had to choose the form in which I would rather live again, I think it would be as an Ant. Just see: This little creature lives under a perfect political organization. All ants are obliged to labor, to lead a useful life; all are industrious, and perfect subordination prevails with discipline and order." St. Patrick must have rid Ireland of both snakes AND ants!
In the 19th century, science prevailed and rather than trying to imitate the complicated society of ants, men and women tried to figure out how a colony of ants act in unison as if they were a single organism. Ant farms, big and small, replaced doll houses for some children and became study sites for entomologists. The ones sold in the back of comic books lacked a queen, thus had no longevity.
Then as the 20th century rolled around, these creatures, so prevalent everywhere and so difficult to disrupt or get rid of, were thought to be a menace, especially if each nest contained two million of these merciless invaders. H.G. Wells never used little green men as scary aliens in his stories. His invaders were insect-like creatures: That black carpet of moving ants would bring fear into anyone’s heart in the "Empire of the Ants." Think, too, of the movie "Them!" where the giant ants terrorize the people of New Mexico, picking them up in their powerful mandibles, shooting them full of formic acid and devouring them.
Ants exist everywhere except the coldest regions of the world. There are 300 genera with thousands of species. An ant is immediately identifiable with its tri-part body, six legs and kinked antennae. Most live in nests in trees or underground, in hillocks or mounds, save for the true army ants who are continually on the move bivouacking whereever they end up by nightfall. Picture them pitching tents and unfurling sleeping bags. The army ants we saw in Africa (and carefully stepped over) looked like an inch-thick rope as they marched across the path and into the rainforest.
The most intriguing battalion I’ve seen is the one that climbed three stories up and onto Dylan’s (our son) porch in the middle of San Francisco. As a dark ropy unit, they slipped in under the door, walked up the kitchen cabinet to the sink, meandered in a line across the sink and counter, up the side of the refrigerator and squeezed under the rubber of the door and made their way into the freezer. They do have a keen sense of smell, but what could they possibly smell emanating from a freezer?
Who wants ants in the kitchen? When E.O. Wilson, the world famous entomologist whose specialty is ants, was asked by a colleague, plagued by these little creatures in his kitchen, what he should do, Wilson replied, "Watch where you step! and maybe give them a treat. They really like whipped cream and tuna." How did Wilson find this out? Should you give them tuna with whipped cream on top or should you give them tuna as an entrée followed by cream for dessert?
I put ant traps down, but it has not stopped my guys. I’ll have to wait until it warms up bit more and move them to the great outdoors where they belong. The shoeless shuffle will silently continue for a little bit longer.
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.