Quite a long time ago, when I was a little girl, we had a canvas hammock hanging between two trees in our back yard. In summertime—those amazingly long, languid summers we had back then—I would spend hours lying on my belly crosswise on the hammock, watching the ants. In the big bare spot under the hammock ants had constructed ant piles. That’s what we kids called them, ant piles. There I’d lie, comfortably supported by the thick cloth of the hammock, my legs sticking out one side and my head out the other side, looking at down at the ants’ doings.
It could be pretty exciting, especially when I would find a hapless caterpillar or worm somewhere and drop it down into the midst of the ants. Kids love this kind of stuff, the horror! the horror! as the ants attacked this wondrous food source, killed it, and eventually dragged it down one of their holes. Sometimes you could catch an ant of another color and place it, the enemy, among the defenders of the opposite color. They’d fight, and I’d watch, quite spellbound and thrilled in a guilty kind of way. Sometimes I’d sprinkle sugar grains on the ant pile, too. I’m not sure I learned anything much, but I saw a lot.
After a rain, I would check on the ants under the hammock. How were they doing? Had their holes been flooded? Were they all drowned? Nope, usually within a few hours industrious ones had already opened their doors and were busily clearing out their hidden tunnels, and tiny crumbs of earth piled up in a new little pile. I was impressed.
None of my family has lived in that house for many years now, but I sometimes wonder if the descendants of my ants still live there, under the spot where our hammock used to swing.
These days, I try not to step on ants, except when I find one in my house where it does not belong—at least it doesn’t belong in my concept of my house, although the ant feels itself perfectly at home. Now, I will mash a mosquito sucking on my arm with no qualms. But I have learned so many marvelous things about ants that I can’t bring myself wantonly to destroy one going about its business in its outdoor territory.
Ants, as tiny as they are, are filled with wondrous structures: various miniscule tubes that pump their body’s fluids and carry nervous messages round their little bodies; tiny holes in their crisp exoskeletons that allow gases to pass in and out; an enormous array of chemicals at the ready to send information to other ants or to protect themselves. That’s not even to mention their complex social order. How can I just crunch all that under my shoe, if its owner is not bothering me?
And it’s not only the ants in my driveway, that I can see. The great biologist Edward O. Wilson, whose life’s passion is the ants, is pretty sure that the total weight of all the ants in the ground (one to ten quadrillion individuals, he thinks) is equal to the total weight of all of us humans above the ground. That is a lot of ants. Professor Wilson believes that there might be as many as 22,000 species of ant, although only maybe 12,500 of those have been described by scientists. There is only one species of human! We are outnumbered! I must respect that ant, there on my driveway.
Ants have been around a long time, too, as much as 150 million years. If you search the internet for images of Ants in Amber, you can find photographs of fossilized tree sap, in which ants are clearly visible. They may have gotten stuck in that sap over 20 million years ago. Maybe they are ancestors of my hammock ants, or my driveway ants.
Right now there are 525,600 minutes available to you in the next year. How about taking, say, three of those minutes some time today, perhaps on your way to or from work, to look down and look for some ants. Spend the three minutes watching them. What did you see that you never noticed before? And you still have 525,597 minutes left.
(See http://www.antweb.org for all things ant)
metro 03:32pm, 12/21/2013
December 21, 2013
As the winter solstice approaches tomorrow I am remined of your recent journey to NW Africa culminating with the Solar Eclipse in the south Verdes. I look forward to more photos of the trip, particularly the Verdes. I checked the record for solar happenings seen from San Diego and it looks like the late afternoon of October 17, 2014 when a partial will take place. Your enthusiasm for the wonderful variety of our planet (and on the cusp of space exploratiion) is much appreciated. Keep up the great work in the New Year.