You can’t beat the ant. She has you licked — by 29 million years!
A. C. ANDERSONAugust151946
Meet the Ant
You can’t beat the ant. She has you licked — by 29 million years!
A. C. ANDERSON
IF YOU are lounging in a lawn chair, reading this magazine, there’s probably an ant crawling up your leg. A few yards away, on city sidewalk or lakeside rock, four-year-old Junior may be slaughtering an advancing column of ants with a stone, marvelling that they keep right on coming and pause only to make off with their dead.
As she desperately tries to plug that crack over the sink with Junior’s plasticine, your wife’s ant-inspired frenzy will be surpassed only by your own as you campaign against the anthills that pockmark your lawn. But even if the entire household takes a solemn vow to conquer
these crawling hordes, chances are the ants will have the last word.
For there are only two or three of you and there are thousands of ants on your 30-foot frontage. And while you may be smarter than they are, they are driven by a persistence bred into the family Formicidae for more than 30 million years.
You can kill hundreds of the little pests if you become very cunning with gasoline and matches, but in the end you will only set fire to the garage.
You can turn a hose on their nest and accomplish nothing, because most species can survive several days under water. If you grimly arm yourself with potassium cyanide and carbolic acid you might poison the dog but you will not exterminate the ants. Even if you capture individual specimens and cut oft their heads, as a last and painstakingly desperate resort, they may walk around for weeks before they die.
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Nature has fitted this hardy insect for survival even better than she has equipped man. She has no intention of letting ants vanish from the earth just because an irate gardener in Chilliwack, B.C., finds them a nuisance. She’s been too long getting ants where they are to let them be beaten now.
Some specimens preserved in Baltic amber, a resin from trees whose age has been set at 30 million years, are no different from the ants that raid your kitchen today. In contrast, man is a mere million years old.
The Mound Builders
The majority of Canadian ants live in underground nests that rise to the surface in some sort of mound—a minute one in the case of the lawn ant, or a young mountain several feet across, as you’ll see them on the prairies. Other ants favor old logs or the underside of stones in solving their housing problems. Altogether about 50 species of ants crawl in their billions across the face of Canada, differing in size, habits, color or choice of a homestead. Most of them are harmless little fellows, without the economic importance of pests like the cutworm or the potato bug. They live mainly on other insects.
Best-known ant in Canada is the yellowish-brown lawn ant, which gets itself disliked by throwing up tiny humps of earth on lawns and gardens.
Perhaps least objectionable of Canada’s ants is the large, common black variety, chiefly a tree dweller, although it frequently nests in the decaying woodwork of houses and summer cot-
tages. It is called the carpenter ant because it likes to burrow in wood, but as a rule it does little damage, since it prefers logs or rafters that are already rotting away.
But the real scourge of home life is the little red variety known as the Pharaoh’s ant, which likes buildings, warehouses, ships—anyplace dry, warm and well-stocked with food. It was originally a tropical species but has been carried by commerce to all civilized parts of the globe.
The social habits of ants are orderly and well-defined, because they’ve been in a rut for 30 million years. And for our purposes, we’ll settle the old argument about which comes first, the egg or the ant, by starting with the egg— one of a batch of 15 to 30 a mother ant lays underground, under a stone, or in some other enclosed place.
These eggs, too small to be seen by the naked eye, first hatch into small, soft, white grubs called larvae, usually less than an eighth of an inch long. Helpless as any newborn babe, they’re fed from the mother ant’s saliva. The queen doles out the rations frugally, since she herself never leaves the nest, even for a snack, until the first brood matures. After 30 days the larvae spin cocoons within which they develop through the “pupae” stage.
Every small boy eventually pokes a stick into an ant nest, but only the most observant ever see the tiny ant eggs. Junior may cry excitedly, “Ant eggs!” but usually he has merely spotted the cocoons, which may be all of three eighths of an inch long and a sixteenth of an inch in diameter.
Let’s watch one of these cocoons, and see what happens. A queen prods it. It bursts. A young ant steps out, marriageable, female; about the
only difference between her and a real adult ant is that she has wings.
There is no coyness about this young virgin and no need to advise her on marital relations. Instinctively she knows what her function is and how to fulfill it. On a still, sultry day she suddealy feels a desire to fly into the air and use her wings for the first time. Once air-borne she’s lost in a cloud of eligible males. As soon as the brief honeymoon is over she drops to earth and tackles marriage’s responsibilities.
From then on she’s a queen ant.
The store of spermatozoa acquired on the one short honeymoon is retained in active form in a small pouch in her body and will be used sparingly to fertilize the vast number of eggs she lays during the remainder of her life— which may last 14 years, mankind and other enemies permitting.
First she gets rid of her wings by rubbing them against a twig. They come aff easily. Then, after digging herself a snug underground hideaway, or shacking up under a stone or behind the birk of an old log, the queen ant enters into a period of solitary selfentombment, during which she produces her first batch of eggs. In three montas or so she’ll have a fine family of mature adult ants to turn loose on a long-suffering world. From then until the day she dies she will be fed, washed, protected and looked after without having to do a thing but lay eggs. You or I might find it dull, but ants aren’t given much to pondering their lot.
Since the male ant’s only function is to fertilize the queens—he dies a month or so later—an ant colony is really a community of females. The majority of them are unfitted for motherhood. They’re the worker ants, who for the whole of their five-year life span build the nests, do the housekeeping, forage for food, and look after the young— work even harder than a farmer’s wife on a prairie homestead.
Which of the females become queens and which become workers is a matter of the quality of food they receive in the larva stage. Each colony raises and harbors one or more fertilized queen ants.
High up on the ant’s menu of favorite foods is a sugary delicacy called —overglamorously—honeydew. The
ant’s craving for this makes her a great friend of another insect called the aphid.
Aphids, or plant lice, are tiny (just barely visible) creatures which subsist by extracting the juices from plants, and conveniently ooze out as honeydew what they can’t digest. Ants are on such good terms with plant lice that all they need do is sidle up to them and after a few caressing strokes of the ant’s antennae — those waving, hairlike feelers—the aphid oozes honeydew all over the place. This co-operative spirit has caused plant lice to become known as ant “cows.”
Most civilized people spend a quarter of their lives “training for life.” Ants start right in living from scratch. The moment the colonizing queen helps them dig themselves out of their cocoons they set off looking for food and start a new colony. And they choose exactly the same food, build precisely the same sort of nest, of identical materials, as their tribe have always done. Microscopically short on intelligence—though they do have a small capacity for learning—ants are prodigously long on instinct, an instinct inbred for millions of generations.
When that small boy with the stick, playing Destiny with an anthill, bursts open its doors he sees a seething, apparently chaotic, mass of life rushing wildly in all directions. But that’s no
mob of terrified women wringing their hands because the roof of the house has fallen in. Each individual is coolly carrying out a specific task in this unexpected emergency, and the entire colony is working with a co-ordination and discipline not often surpassed in our own worldly affairs./
Smell Way Home
Whenever danger threatens the nest some mysterious call to “action stations” marshals hosts of worker ants who seize the eggs, queens, larvae and cocoons and rush them to a “bombproof” deep in the nest. If a real calamity occurs, the rescue squads will carry their charges bodily into the unknown wilderness of the world outside. In defense of their sovereign state the workers do not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the common good, which in their unwitting philosophy is continuance of the race. Every other consideration is secondary.
Some ant citadels found in the tropics have squads of soldier ants on home establishment — hefty fellows with tremendous jaws. When the nest is attacked by enemy ant legions the defending troops are rushed up to engage the invader, while behind the bloody and brutal battle lines the smaller workers feverishly rush the eggs and pupae to safety.
Mighty jaws crushing in the skulls of the foe, the warrior ants show neither fear nor emotion. Nature has put a soldier brain in a soldier body, and they go about the cruel work with the same detached efficiency as the toiling workers behind them.
Ants get along with poor eyesight, some families being totally blind, and if they are able to hear at all, their range is not in the human scale of frequencies. They have a definite sense of taste, but their practical use of it is completely overshadowed by their dependence on smell and touch. Their long, prying antennae serve both as nose and fingers.
When ants go foraging outside the nest they usually smell their way home —but they can be fooled. A daub of honey on a piece of cardboard near the nest will lure a worker to eat her fill before returning to notify her companions. If you give the cardboard a full-circle spin while she’s eating, the amazon will eventually head right back across the cardboard the way she came —and directly away from the nest.
Though they can’t see much, most ants rely to some extent on their light perception when wandering far afield. Consciously or subconsciously, the tiny creatures note the direction from which the sun falls on them as they leave home. On the return trip, should their sense of smell let them down, the sun’s position will put them back on course.
But pop a pillbox over an ant for an hour, let her go again, and she’ll head for where she thinks home is—off beam by exactly as many degrees as the sun has shifted meanwhile.
Persistent, unreasoning, a battler of time-endowed tenacity, the pesky excavator of your prize lawn and raider of your rationed sugar is clearly no opponent to be underrated. But there are two or three effective tricks worth trying if you’re prepared to outpersist the ant.
Gas warfare is prescribed for those yellowish-brown lawn ants. Borrow Junior’s inquisitive stick, push the point into the tiny anthill to widen the opening, and pour down a few ounces of carbon bisulphide. Push your foot firmly down upon the antery, to pack in the earth and close the hole, and the fumes will penetrate through the subterranean tunnels. This should kill most of the ants.
There are other “cures” you can try on that scourge of the kitchen, the Pharaoh’s ant, and the big black carpenter’s ant. First is the simple defense tactic of keeping all pantry shelves free of crumbs and storing all food in antproof containers. If you find ants are still trekking daily across your shelves, hoping to catch you leaving the top off the jam bottle, there’s the more subtle Borgia method of slow poison. The ant is wide open to this one because he’s a communist.
It’s share and share alike in an ant colony. When a worker on chow detail returns to the nest with bulging stomach she’s promptly surrounded by others who’ve been stuck with the egghauling detail all day and haven’t had a bite to eat. They go to work on her with the old back-stroking routine that she herself works so well on the plant lice, and she bigheartedly regurgitates a good part of what she’s been gorging on in your larder. Now begin to get the plot?
You could use any number of fastacting poisons on the ants in your pantry but you’ll kill only those assigned to harass your kitchen, which will quickly be replaced by reinforcements. But try dipping a sponge in something slow and lingering with sodium arsenite in it (one gram of sodium arsenite in a pint of hot water, adding sugar or honey to what you think is an ant’s taste), and the dining ants won’t gasp and die on your drainboard. They’ll hustle home to spread
the bounty—and the poison—among their sisters, and gradually turn the happy social state into a charnel house.
IIow to Kill an Ant
Be careful you don’t poison anybody but the ants. The safest plan is to dip a sponge in the poisonous mixture, label and put the poison bottle away on a good high shelf out of the children’s reach, then put the sponge in a tin that has a good tight lid and a few nail holes in it to admit anything antsize. Leave the tin where the ants can get at it easily. These modern tactics of infiltration, exploiting what the scientists call the ant’s “social stomach,” will in time kill off the whole colony.
This sneaky trick that betrays the ant in her own stronghold is significant. The ants fall for it because their social system is as complex and efficient as anything devised by man—division of labor, communal feeding and all the rest. And also because they haven’t the brains to get suspicious; they just keep on going hack for more.
Given a grain of intelligence to start with, in prehistoric times, the ant might have spent her eons on earth getting the mental jump on mankind, and have forced us to start tunnelling for our lives long before the coming of the atom bomb. And don’t take any bets that there won’t be ants around after we superior types have succeeded in wiping ourselves off the map.
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