Nazi ants? I’d never heard that one before. But a friend said it, referring to the long columns raiding her kitchen night after night. Effing Nazi ants, she said. The tiny insects has gone from being household pests to threats to civilization itself. Civilization? Well, my personal civilization, she said, her clothes and cats and knick knacks and foodstuffs. There’d been a blitzkrieg just that morning, an effing Nazi ant column seizing the high ground around the cat food dish. She really didn’t like ants.
I mentioned that, coincidentally, there are certain ant species that are informally classified by myrmecologists as fascist, world domineering species. The catchline is that if those species had nuclear weapons the world would have been blown up long ago. Luckily, I added, ants are tiny and somewhat technologically incompetent.
You’re scaring me, she said.
Buy a can of Raid, I said.
It’s funny, when I was a kid ants were stubborn, pesky rubber tree movers. Whoops there goes another rubber tree plant sang Sinatra in a song he probably did not sing too often if he could avoid it. Antz and A Bug’s Life were late reflections of that sort of ant. Cute ants. Hard working ants. Ants, tiny little things that together seemed worthy of anthropomorphism. The first books on ants I read were like that. Of course, there were also the Nazi/Mongol/Evil Empire army ants who ate people in the Naked Jungle. But army ants lived in jungles, far away. Everything was scary in jungles. In America ants rhymed with rubber tree plants. Cute.
Then myrmecology became popular, mainly because of E.O. Wilson. That huge book he and Bert Hölldobler did back in the 1990’s, cleverly titled The Ants, actually became a best seller. It’s a door stopper and quite technical, but had lots of great photos and several hundred thousand Americans bought it. Go figure. It was followed by a whole series of books on the romantic lives of myrmecologists and on ants themselves. I’ve probably read all of them. I have a miniature myrmecology library. As people became more myrmecological, the trend in the perception of ants moved from Sinatra to fascist. Ant societies became these incredible superorganisms (in fact, Superorganism by Bert Hölldobler is sitting in my to be read stack) that would be absolutely terrifying if they weren’t so damn small. Perhaps the fire ant invasion and the killer bee invasion suddenly made social insects into scary things. But Argentine ants are kind of unsettling too. You probably remember when you were a kid in California that there were several different kind of ants in your yard. I remember little black ones, littler black ones, big red ones, little red ones, and medium sized black and red ones. I remember seeing some of these in Hollywood and Silver Lake back in the 80’s still. They are all gone now. Only Argentine ants remain. In brutal tiny wars we never saw they annihilated every other ant species they came across in California’s urban and suburban areas. Only the big red ants survive, but they exist in areas away from people and a regular water supply. Argentine ants like water. Hence they might be in your sink right now. (We just had a swarm of them on the fish tank.) Fire ants, incidentally, the only ant in the United States that can actually kill people (given enough stings and anaphylaxis), need even more water than Argentine ants, so large parts of southern California are out of bounds for them. Not suburban lawns, though. We water those. Perfect for both species. And somewhere out there in Orange County right now a war to the death is going on between fire ants and Argentine ants. The Argentine ants, here, are winning. They’ve lost in Texas and the deep south where there is sufficient rain. But the limited fire ant invasion in southern California thus far is due mostly to a combination of our dry climate and our annoying Argentine ants. Curse them in your kitchen, spray them, stomp them, sprinkle them with Borax, but be glad they are outside on the sidewalk, in the garden, in the lawn. Otherwise you’d have fire ants everywhere in southern California. Argentine ants are our deliverance, like Stalinist Russia destroying the Third Reich. Two giant tiny civilizations trying to conquer the world beneath our feet.
“An Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) attacks a much larger fire ant (Solenopsis invicta).” From an absolutely gorgeous photo essay at http://www.alexanderwild.com. Highly recommended site, some of the finest nature photography I have ever seen.