Monday, November 12, 2018

Planet Of The Ants

Thinking about concrete has been taking up a lot of my time this week. It’s the thirtieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down. That was some impressive concrete, a powerful reminder that concrete is a rich subject for consideration. Before long, my thoughts were drifting to other favorite things. We are constantly aware of the ants, and they are certainly remarkable little creatures. 
They are somewhere in our field of vision more than we would find ideal, probably. We are simply accustomed to their presence, but they are, in fact, so interesting that it is almost disturbing.

I am informed, and believe, that ants evolved from some kind of wasp-like creatures about 140 million years ago. That doesn’t sound like long enough, does it? They have ants that were trapped in amber about 100 million years ago, and they maintain some wasp-like characteristics, along with a lot of ant-like characteristics. (This is from Wikipedia and a couple of other sites, BBC Science or something.) Wiki says that they “achieved ecological dominance” about sixty million years ago. That sounds more ominous than the author intended, I’m sure. Isn’t that about when the dinosaurs became extinct? Unrelated events, no doubt.

It is certain that today, as we speak, there are an awful lot of ants in the world. I remember reading long ago that there were ant colonies in the dirt under the ice on the Antarctic Continent, but the current consensus is that that was just a linguistic coincidence. They are everywhere else, though. They make up between 15% and 25% of the total biomass of every animal on earth, and the biomass of all of the ants is just about equal to the biomass of all of the human beings on earth. Whose world is it? That one seems to be a tie.

The Ants of Thailand

We have a lot of ants here in Thailand. Many different varieties, different shapes and sizes. One of the great but little-known things about Thailand is that the place is so wonderful that most of the bugs live outside. There’s so much for them to do out there, and the weather is so inoffensive, that they just stay there. God knows there’s enough rotting vegetation to keep them fed, along with dead geckos and the carcasses of larger insects. I guess there’s enough rain distributed throughout the year to keep them from getting thirsty, although I have noticed in some years that the “dry season” leaves them no choice but to parade into your kitchen or bathroom, if they are handy.

We have red ants; ants that are half clear and half red; brown ants; ants that are black; ants that are half black and half brown; and ants that look roughly the color of leopards and appear as though they might just have the spots as well. We have them so small that you can hardly see them, and so large that you can tell their faces apart and give them names. Those giants tend to travel around alone, and if you happen to be standing at the sink when they poke their heads up for a look-see, they take a moment to regard you with something approaching interest.

I had the giants in the first house that I rented up in the northern mountains. We never saw them anywhere but the kitchen, which was a vent-block affair attached to one outside wall of the house. That’s a very common set up; it keeps the heat of cooking from making the house uninhabitable. They stayed out of the house part. My guess is that there were too many geckos in the house. I’d see the giant ants one at a time coming up to the splash-plate of the counter to have a look around. Having satisfied themselves that there was nothing of interest in the area, they would go back the way they came.

Ants are a food source for many Thai people. Sometimes this is part of the dynamic that people who are poor enough will literally eat anything, but there is one ant-based food that is highly valued as a delicacy. That would be Kai Mot Daeng, or red ant eggs. These, of course, do not look like eggs at all, and they disappear nicely into the dishes that include them. It is, in fact, the least offensive way to eat insects that I have ever encountered. Way up the mountain somewhere if you find a local village market, they will have several kinds of bugs for sale, and people who grew up with them as a common food source do seem to like them. Everything from grasshoppers to huge black beetles, already prepared or just ready for your kitchen. I will cheerfully eat dishes containing the red ant eggs; I will risk being rude to avoid eating one of the larger insects.

Ants are busy little things. When we first arrived at our Peace Corps teaching site, we were housed in the “teacher house” of the big grammar school in town. It was an ancient structure, but dry and tidy. On the second evening there was a huge swarm of termites, I mean it was so dense we could hardly see the TV. There’s nothing to be done about that but wait it out and then sweep them up. They were dying by the time we went to bed, and we figured that we would sweep them up in the morning. We had noticed some unusual ant activity as the termites began to hit the floor in large numbers. (The bedroom upstairs was clear.) When we came downstairs rather early the next morning, there was no termite debris in evidence. The ants had packed it all off to ant-land. Other than that, I don’t remember seeing any ants in that house. If something is in the wind, they will sense it and spring into vigorous action. The periodic termite swarms were probably something that they looked forward to.

Now I live in a condo building that was built about twenty years ago. I have what I believe are called, “crazy ants.” Not many, but if you poke around in the kitchen you’ll always see a few, either on the counter or in a cabinet. Ants are justifiably famous for their regimentation, for their great organization, for the profound order of their lives. Crazy ants are not like that. Most of the ants that you see are moving along the same path, forth and back, following a pheromone trail to something of value that one of them stumbled across. If one happens to deviate from the path, she will quickly discover her mistake and rejoin the parade. I say “she,” they are almost all she. The crazy ants never make a line or follow a path. They seem to be scattering away from the explosion of a stink-bomb. And fast, too. They are among the smallest of the ants that I know of, and they race along like there was no tomorrow. Not just fast to scale, not just fast for their small size, but fast compared to any other insect. I cannot imagine how fast their tiny legs are pumping. Just keeping those six tiny legs coordinated at that speed wins my greatest respect.

The state of their disorganization makes a Pachinko machine look like a model of order. They never appear to know where they’re going, nor does it ever seem like they are returning to a particular place. If they stumble onto something good, like a sticky spot on the counter what was made by a drop of honey, they will begin to congregate. Even then, they seem to grow impatient and start to run again. Crazy ants is a good name for them. There must be a reason for the behavior, but I don’t think that it has been discovered yet.

Living with Ants

It’s all good to study ant behavior and I’m sure that the pros have a lot of fun doing it. I’m more interested in the social aspect of living with these tiny animals.

I grew up in houses that were remarkably insect-free. There were spiders, but people in my parents’ generation, and previous generations, held the belief that spiders in the house were a sign of good luck. It meant the house was dry. There would be mosquitoes in the season, and they are annoying, and there were flies, also mostly in summer, but the social dynamic is different with flying insects. At least with mosquitoes, you know exactly what they want. They want your blood. Other than that firm intention, they seem devoid of intelligence. Compared to mosquitoes, flies are geniuses. Flies are aware, hyperaware in fact, of their surroundings. If there is a mosquito on your arm, you can easily kill him, leaving only a small spot of your own blood. Flies, on the other hand, seem to have eyes in every direction and supernatural reflexes. None of this is disturbing; it is merely annoying.

After getting married, and still living in New York City, I graduated to roaches. Our last apartment in New York was in a public housing project, and boy, did we have roaches. Being forced to live with them, I spent some time in the library studying them, and I discovered that they are generally not dangerous as disease vectors. They are just seeking food and shelter, like any other sensible organism, and they are fairly clean in their habits and keep to themselves as much as possible, inside the walls where you cannot see them. Unless you have a serious allergy to the dust made by their rotting carcasses, there’s not too much to worry about.

It did not occur to me at the time, but the major difference between living with roaches and living with ants is that the roaches have the common decency to respect you, while the ants utterly fail to even notice your presence, much less respect the title that you hold to the property that they are so blithely enjoying the use of.

Roaches are sufficiently aware to fear you. If I entered my kitchen in the project at night, and turned on a light, a roach walking along the wall would casually go about his business. If, however, I turned my head towards him and held him in my stare, he would freeze. Minutes could go by without either of us moving. As soon as I made one move in his direction, he would sail off at top speed. When I first identified this behavior, I found the apparent intelligence of it alarming. My brother-in-law was studying for a MS in biology at the time, and I described the behavior to him, along with my concerns. He assured me that it was simply a part of the instinctive crawling behavior of certain insects.

But the roaches, they see you, they fear you, and they desperately try to escape from you. Ants, on the other hand, ignore you. They do have eyes, so it is likely that they can identify your movement at least. If you start to poke one of their Indian-file trails with your finger, they will attack you, so they are not beyond recognizing your presence. In the absence of an immediate threat, however, their disdain for you is total. It’s fucking annoying.

Therein probably lies the secret of the ants’ success. You probably could not entice a colony of roaches to attack you. They’re instinct is to escape. They are on the look-out for threats, and ready at all times to make a clean getaway. Even if you invade their space and kill great numbers of them, those that remain alive simply move on, as fast as possible.

Ants, on the other hand, will attack you. They will enjoy it. They attack at the drop of a hat. If another colony of ants intrudes on their territory, they will attack it. If the level of their alarm is sufficient, they may even follow the enemy ants back to their nest and kill them all. That’s even if the other ants are of the identical species. They will readily declare war on rival ant species. They will do the same with termites, which are rather larger animals. They’ve got big red ants in Texas, or those fire ants, who will swarm all over you if they believe you are a threat. Where do the army-ants live, out in Africa somewhere? They will sting the shit out of you. There is actually one species of ant whose sting can be fatal, but one out of 15,000 separately identified types doesn’t sound too bad. The likelihood of encountering them seems slim.

Arrogant might be the operative word for ants. They are arrogant little things. But since a powerful argument could be made that this is their world, and we just live in it, I suppose that they are entitled to a smidge of arrogance. If you are the best, and you say that you are the best, you’re not really bragging, now are you?  

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