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Pesky ants have much to teach us

Is there anyone in Boulder City who didn’t end up with those pesky little ants this summer? They visited my neighbor and friends across town! Me? I had two visits. What a nuisance. And what a quandary for the ecoconscious.

I really wanted to leave them alone. They, after all, are the more indigenous species in our little urbanized habitat. But with the usual human territorial mentality, I found my annoyance turn to real angst as the princess ants and drones attacked my iPhone during my nocturnal reading. Have they no modesty in their nuptial sorties? I had reached my ecoprudent limit!

This being the fourth year of Ants versus Cat, I rose one morning only to find a total inundation of ants in my kitchen. Ants trailing along the floor, up the cabinets, across to a small speck of unidentifiable crumb on my counter. I was a female David against an army of Philistines. While Israel had its God, I had my trusty spray disinfectant, some tasty attractant they could carry back to their colony, and a tube of silicone to seal their entry into my territory. This method of eliminating the little beasts takes care of the invading army immediately for the short term and within 24 hours for the long term.

But while I struggle for control of my environment, I ruminate on the resulting health of their colony. Ants do have their place in our world. And so, to soothe my conscious, I turned to my favorite pastime — research — to learn about these milliliter-size critters and ponder the consequence of their eradication.

The ant lives in a caste world with queens, princesses, soldiers, workers, drones and sometimes slaves. Ants are colonial critters. Each year a new queen (her lot in life is short) strikes out on her own to establish a new colony. She is conniving and ruthless. Her command may range in size from a few dozen individuals to a highly organized colony of millions.

“Individuals” is an appropriate term for these apocrita (is this the root of the term “critter”?) for the ant is an incredibly intelligent, resourceful creature. It lives in a social environment, cooperating in a unified manner, capable of interactive learning and changing its societal role based on its previous experience. Ants divide their labor, communicate and can solve complex problems. No “hive mentality” here!

“Antologists” estimate the total number of ants alive at any one time is in the quadrillions, making the total biomass of all the ants in the world about equal to the total biomass of the human race. This tidbit brings to mind the scene in the movie “Contact,” with the reference to the alien culprit squashing earthlings, earthlings questioning whether the culprit species would blink an eye at our destruction. Species-squashing is sobering knowing there are already ant families no longer extant.

So, as I pull out my ant bait and spray bottle, why do I care about squashing this invasive intruder? Because they matter, is my answer.

These little critters provide ecological, medicinal, scientific, and even technological and cerebral benefits. Ants have been around since the beginning of time. The Bible references the ant as an example of industry, determination and cooperation. Aesop, Mark Twain, and T.H. White are just a few of the authors using the ant’s qualities to work their story. Native American culture reveres the ant as the very first animal. In Africa, ants are considered messengers of God.

For those not relating to the spiritual benefits of these little critters … ants provide predatory pest control for agriculture. China uses the weaver ant in citrus cultivation. South Africans raid the nests of black ants to harvest (steal) small seeds used in an herbal tea. The mandibles of army ants are used in many countries as surgical sutures. The study of ant behavior has furthered the work of scientists investigating ecology and sociology while computer techies study the ant kingdom in their quest for domain and Web search technology (“foraging trails”).

Does this added knowledge mean my spray bottle and bait will never again be employed against an onslaught? I wish I could say yes, but realistically, I will falter and defend my territory. I will however reach for the silicone first, instead of last, to see if I can block their entry rather than immediately annihilate them.

They provide our world with great service and knowledge. They have much to teach me. We think ourselves the superior species, but they are the more focused, unified society. They may seem the least of this world’s creatures, but in their societies we find masters of cooperation and unity from which we bipeds may gain much insight and wisdom — not the least of which is finally enlightening my husband on the importance of wiping up the counter after he makes his sandwich.

Cat Trico has lived in Boulder City since 2003 and is a past president of the Senior Center and co-founder of the Decker Lake Wetlands Preserve. As an author and editor, she contributed to “Rights, Responsibilities, and Relationships” for youth. She can be reached at cat.circa1623@gmail.com.

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