Overstating the wonders of ants?

— The following is a guest post by Marlene Zuk, entomologist and author of the new book Sex on Six Legs

As the readers of Myrmecos already know, it’s hard to get people to feel warm and fuzzy about insects. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle when I wrote my book, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World, just because of all the rampant entomophobia out there. I was not, however, expecting that some of my Amazon reviews would downgrade the book because, although they enjoyed the writing, the reviewer just didn’t like bugs. This seems a bit unfair, like dismissing Moby Dick because you are not a fan of whales, but so it goes. I was also not expecting that some of the reviewers would sententiously take exception to the inclusion of material in the book that wasn’t about sex (as my agent says, do they think that Gone with the Wind was about the weather?). The book is about why we keep coming back to insects to understand the world, and how their very dissimilarity from humans makes them such good teachers.

But here I am among friends, or so I hope, and I wanted to share a bit of the book that is not about sex, but is about Alex’s favorites, the ants.

Today it is accepted as proven that the ant is incontestably one of the noblest, most courageous, most charitable, most devoted, most generous and most altruistic creatures on earth. – Maurice Maeterlinck, 1930

If ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week. – Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, 1994

Ants may inspire more emotional reactions than any other insect, reactions that go far beyond the revulsion of finding a cockroach scurrying across the kitchen counter or pleasure at seeing a butterfly light on a flower.  As the two quotations above attest, ants can be paragons of harmony and virtue, or symbols of bloodthirsty violence.  Honeybees come close to ants in serving as reflections of our own society, but we see bees singly, flying from blossom to blossom, rather than en masse, and the workings of the hive are not visible to most of us.  Ants, however, stream across our driveways in glistening black ribbons.  They seethe through our cereal boxes and bear crumbs triumphantly along the edge of the shelf and out the door.  With a few moments of casual observation, it’s even possible to see ants carrying their young from place to place, whereas no one other than beekeepers (and entomologists) ever sees much in the way of bee family life.  And they walk, rather than fly, making them a little easier, perhaps, to identify with.

Like many of the other social insects, ants seem to share food unhesitatingly, and they work tirelessly for their colony, as Maeterlinck notes above.  Maeterlinck, a Belgian playwright and poet who won the 1911 Nobel Prize for literature, was particularly taken by the ants’ practice of passing droplets of food from one individual to another, called trophyllaxis, a behavior not seen in most non-social insects.  For reasons that are not altogether clear, at least to me, he seemed to think that this behavior was intensely pleasurable for the ants, somehow compensating the workers for their lack of sexual activity by a near-orgasmic sensation when the food was transferred.

But ants also have a dark side that is obvious to even a casual observer.  Naturalists since ancient times noted the apparent wars that raged between ants of different colors, with battles that went on for hours.  Army ants are so named for their rampaging behavior.  And according to historian Charlotte Sleigh, “The commonly known fact that ants engage in warfare has given them a particular edginess in times of human conflict.”  A handful of species of ants exhibit a behavior that is strikingly similar to slavery in humans: one kind of ant will make raids on a colony of another species and steal its young workers, to be reared in the nest of the invaders and put to work for the rest of their lives.  Charles Darwin described part of such a raid in The Origin of Species, musing on “the wonderful instincts of making slaves”.  According to Bertrand Russell, “Ants and savages put strangers to death,” although plenty of familial slaughter takes place as well.

When I was a child I went through a phase in which I told people I wanted to be a myrmecologist when I grew up.  Although I did indeed spend time watching the ants in our backyard, along with the other insects, I was probably driven more by smug delight at knowing that the word means someone who studies ants than by any actual career motivation.  Be that as it may, when we had an assignment in third or fourth grade to read a book and report on it to the rest of the class, I chose a book on ants, and happily launched into a litany of their amazing behaviors.  Ants, I proclaimed, made gardens of fungus that they harvested for food.  They stored honeydew in their own massively swollen abdomens and fed it to the other workers, droplet by droplet.  Not only that, I cheerfully told my classmates, who were by that point probably unnerved if they were not simply bored, but army ants could swarm through entire jungle villages, consuming every living thing they encountered by tearing it to pieces.  Cows, pigs, chickens, and people, all were subject to the advancing hordes with their bladed jaws.  If one were caught unawares by the oncoming troops, the only recourse was to set one’s bedposts in saucers of kerosene, get under the covers, and pray the ants didn’t find a way to drop down onto the bed from the ceiling.  I was slightly hampered in my explanation of this dire state of affairs by my uncertainty of exactly what kerosene was, but I was sure that if I lived in an area frequented by army ants, I would be able to procure some.

Here my teacher intervened.  Surely, she said gently, you are exaggerating.  Ants couldn’t possibly be that destructive.  Perhaps they attacked the animals near the area, or got into a hut or two, but this scale of devastation and carnage seemed a bit much for such tiny creatures.

I dug in my heels.  No, I insisted, the book had said (and hence I unswervingly believed) that the ants could tear apart a person in minutes.  It wasn’t just the odd hen or two, it was An Entire Village.  I honestly don’t remember exactly how or if this disagreement was resolved, or if my grade on the book report was reduced due to my teacher’s suspicion of hyperbole, but I remain convinced that people don’t fully appreciate the wonders of ants, perhaps because they refuse to believe the extraordinary things ants can do.

2 thoughts on “Overstating the wonders of ants?”

  1. That was a beautiful piece. 🙂 It is true, people don’t seem to know what ants are capable of, other than tearing down your house, raiding your picnic, or giving you painful stings. I was once asked by a college interviewer, a higly educated businesswoman at a major company, why I liked ants if they were such annoying little things. It’s a bit sad, really.

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