Friday, October 14, 2011

The ant bit me sharply on the edge of my finger.

The ant bit me sharply on the edge of my finger.  The sensation grew slowly, a bit like being poked by a red-hot sewing needle.  I ignored it, steadying my camera for another shot.
The nest I was aiming at was just a crack in the sidewalk, but hundreds of the tiniest ant were milling around the opening.  Many had wings, so I knew at once that these would soon take off on a mating flight.

My pictures revealed the detail of this to me later; I had seconds to take them before more ants climbed onto my hand, which was resting on the ground for stability, and bit me on my thumb, my knuckle...  I got up quickly and shook them off.  The small ants were only out in such numbers to protect their winged new queens and male drones until they were ready to fly, mate, and start new colonies or die trying.

My pictures revealed two drones in decent detail, or maybe I captured the same one twice (hard to tell, as you can imagine), but the only new queen I shot was out of focus.  The details were lost, but I could see that she had a darker color than the males, and a smaller abdomen.  Both had such large flight muscles as to give them the appearance of hunchbacks, but the males were reddish, with larger compound eyes (the better to see you with?) and abdomens swollen with sperm.

I only took three pictures before brushing the tiny biting ants off my hand and running to catch up to my wife, who hadn't been patiently waiting for me.  We were out on a walk, it was our first anniversary, and I brought my camera along to take pictures of us.  She thought her hair was too messy though, and while I assured her she looked beautiful as always, I didn't want to pressure her, so I had a camera in hand and was looking for something to shoot with it.  When I noticed an ant colony mating flight, how could I resist?

We passed by more colonies of the tiny ants, and even these colonies were swarming with winged males and females, ready to fly and mate, and I explained to my wife, who seemed to be listening, that the colonies of ants from the same species all get their cues to start the mating flight from the environment:  the cloud cover, humidity, previous rainfall, etc.  Somehow all the ant colonies independently judge the time to be "just right" and their maters fly out on the same day, ensuring genetic diversity as females meet males from different colonies, and not just their own.

The colonies of the larger ants, meanwhile, had not received their cues yet, or maybe they already had, and were not out en masse, but were sticking to their daily routine of foraging, digging, garbage removal, and, somewhere deep in the nest, I presume, feeding the queen and all the little larvae with predigested grass seeds and dead bugs.

Here, we get a variation of the most common ant of literature, the ant of Aesop and Solomon, the harvester ant.  The collector ant, the ant that stores its food through the winter (although actually a good chunk of the colony dies during the winter, the queen however survives for up to twenty years), the ant of Antz and A Bug's Life.

These ants scurried under our feet in such numbers that I'm sure I must have stepped on dozens, even while trying to avoid them.  My wife walked steadily on, while I danced some abominable two-step trying to trample as few ants as possible.

I have felt the tug of desire for life as an ant.  A life of simple work, of being part of something bigger, the security of numbers, the instant camaraderie of fellow nestmates, and the unshakable knowledge that anything else that moves is an enemy, to be eaten if possible, or driven away if not.  Of course, these ants die at the ripe old age of two, if they're lucky to live that long.  And the queens who live twenty years or more are stuck underground their whole lives, bellies bloated with eggs, dependent on her children to feed her from the day the first one was born.

So, the ants.  I admire them.  They're resourceful.  They're generous to their sisters and mothers, and vicious toward anything else.  They use the world around them to get ahead, and are quite successful doing so.  And they are sure to be around to the bitter end.

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