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Mountain Home Magazine

A Day at the Ant Farm

Aug 07, 2014 02:58PM

Angelina Stanford

Did you ever read Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers? I devoured it at a tender age; one of the scenes that has stuck with me over the years involved a particularly loathsome character who got his comeuppance on an anthill.

Eeww. Pardon the vernacular, but ants tend to creep me out. They especially do when they’re in the house. I do all the things you’re supposed to do to discourage them—keep the kitchen counters clean, keep the food put away, keep the compost bucket emptied— but they seem to have the idea that a foray inside is some kind of obligatory pilgrimage. I even find them upstairs! How they get up there puzzles me, and the why of it is even more perplexing.

Ants are related to bees and wasps and are found just about everywhere in the world. Antarctica and some large islands like Greenland have no indigenous species of ants, but throughout the rest of the planet they may make up as much as 15-25 percent of terrestrial animal biomass. That’s a lot of ants. Entomologists have identified about 12,000 different species; there may be as many as 22,000. Ants live in colonies, and those colonies can be underground, under your porch, in trees, in mounds, really just about anywhere. If you’re taking a walk in the woods or fields and see big rocks or rotten logs that have been turned over, it’s likely a bear was walking there, too, and looking for ants to eat.

Within the colonies, and as the individual ants are out and about looking for food (they’re mostly omnivorous), there is a division of labor. Ant aficionados have observed interactive teaching activities among the insects as well as problem-solving abilities. Ants come in a range of colors and sizes (one fossilized queen ant was 2.4 inches long with a wingspan of 5.9 inches), but they all have an exoskeleton, antennae, compound eyes, and mandibles. The better to munch with, you know.

Of course ants are a critical component of the ecosystem (which, IMO, does not include the inside of my house); a new study seems to indicate that their value may also extend to carbon sequestration. I don’t completely understand the science of it all, but because ants are “powerful biological agents of mineral decay” (zeenews.india.com), their action on calcium and magnesium-bearing silicates can assist in the gradual reduction of atmospheric CO2.

For an eye-popping look at ants, google The New York Times story on crazy ants. You will be creeped out.