One of my favorite ant things–the genetically uniform super colony of Argentine ants that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco–may not be a genetically uniform super colony of Argentine ants that stretches from San Diego to San Francisco after all. Scientists are still testily debating it. Even in the very dry Science Daily article linked below you can sense myrmecologists getting angry. “How can they be genetically homogenous across wide, wide scales [i.e., San Diego to San Francisco] when they’re not even genetically homogenous across hundreds of meters?” A pro-super colony scientist sighs and reiterates the reason that it is a supercolony. It goes back and forth. No decision. But the article gives the skeptics a final poke. “This story [about the supercolony] has really captured the imagination of the public, and it’s somewhat frustrating” a revisionist myrmecologist complains, “But it’s such a neat story, people sometimes don’t want to hear conflicting evidence.” A cheap shot, sure, but it made me squirm. Her colleague piles on. “I think real ants are much more interesting than the stories we make up about ants. We’d have better stories to tell if we started with the actual data.” The article ends there. The pro-supercolony scientists don’t get a shot back. It’s a little unfair. Meanwhile, I’ll have to wait to see how this turns out, being that I believe I’ve written on this supercolony a couple times and therefore may be spreading alternative facts faster than a myrmecological Kelly Anne Conway. But to be honest I hope the revisionists are wrong, because it really is a neat story, this huge gnarly supercolony of genetically identical tiny little ants beneath our feet. I hate to give it up. Of course science doesn’t really care what you hope is true. Nor do ants, for that matter. I was just looking at an argentine ant on the kitchen counter this morning. She said nothing but scurried away before I had a chance to squish her.
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.
“Great point about insects. Spooky levels of selflessness.”
Not all insects. Social insects. Or eusocial insects, in the parlance of the trade. I am not sure if there has been altruism observed among other insects, but among social insects a selfless sort of altruism, to the point of suicide, makes perfect sense because reproduction is typically done via parthenogenesis. That is, reproduction is asexual, so the offspring–the workers–are genetically identical with the queen, and thus a worker’s exact genes are passed on–via reproduction with males–when new queens leave the colony. The various castes in a colony are developed heterochronistically, where hox genes change the rate of development. You can see that in the various sizes of ants boiling out of a nest. Big ones with huge mandibles are soldiers, most workers are medium sized, while smaller ants and even tiny ants all have their roles in the colony. Everyone has the same genes, but alterations in the growth rates within those genes time their development. Just like in human beings. Heterochrony even assigns us our roles at times. Hypermorphosis creates big tall guys who become professional basketball players. Neoteny creates jockeys. But where male hypermorphosis among us is driven in large part by sexual selection, that is not a factor in ant parthenogenesis. Everyone in an ant colony is genetically identical, and almost none of them will ever have sex anyway. That is left to the queens and males. The rest are just there for the gig, workers mostly, some soldiers. There is actually a lot more variation in individual ant behavior than we might assume–some ants just hang around inside the colony, doing as little as possible–but their roles are decided for them. A worker can no more be a soldier than a basketball player can be a jockey. Yet its that immutable caste system that gives the ants their staying power. Their colonies are not machines, not computer programs, but are what E.O. Wilson calls super-organisms, a whole bunch of tiny little organisms that together act nearly as one. Taken to its furthest extent, the power of an ant colony can be extraordinary.
The Argentine ant supercolony, the ants that drive Californians nuts with their endless invasions, stretches along the California coast, the southeastern coast of Australia and along vast stretches of the western Mediterranean. It is estimated to number billions of individuals, as as many ants as there are human beings–except that every single ant within it, from San Diego to Sidney to Marseilles, is genetically identical. Obviously we human beings are not. Our very development as a species was dependent on the fact that we are not identical. It’s hard to imagine how homo sapiens could ever have survived without genetic variation. Disease itself would have annihilated us. But a single colony of genetically identical Argentine ants seems to be taking over the world…or the parts within climate zones it can survive, and it has increased its population to as many individual ants as there are people and it is genetically identical. Somehow, it works for them. That is the beauty of the eusocial ant business model. Then again, it seems inevitable that something will eventually exploit that lack of genetic variation throughout the entire Argentine mega colony and tear into its impregnability the way the Roman Empire was gutted by Goths, Vandals, Persians and plague in its Crisis of the Third Century. And if this could happen before the Argentine Ant Empire permanently conquers the kitchen in our own household version of the Crisis of the Third Century, I wouldn’t mind.
The good news is that ground squirrel fleas are pretty species specific and you get bit by standing close to a vast ground squirrel colony and snapping pictures of the little devils to try out the autofocus of your new camera. The bad news is that if you are stupid enough to do so, you’ll itch to learn everything there is to know about ground squirrel fleas. Or any kind of fleas.
Your dog fleas are probably cat fleas. Human fleas are no longer that popular anymore, and with youngsters waxing pubic hair off with abandon, their little nature preserves are on the endangered list, at least in Los Angeles. Los Angeles has always been hip to fleas. As has all of California. The Spanish certainly were. Pulgas–fleas–pops up all over the map in this state. There was a whole Rancho de los Pulgas up in the Bay Area, one of the original Spanish land grants. Rich people live there now, making big money from little circuits no bigger than a flea. Not far away, ground squirrels host fleas that still carry the bubonic plague.
As scary as that name sounds, it is not the same plague that swept through Europe in the 1300s. That was a rat driven plague, the plague spreading to the human population because rats infected by the bacteria (Yersinia pestis) died and forced the rodent fleas to bite people, something they no doubt found distasteful but in a famine any host will do.
I don’t know who the fleas bit after all their human hosts died. Maybe no one, and they starved to death in little flea droves, hence ending the plague. It’s interesting that some parts of Europe were untouched by plague. Poland was spared almost entirely. But in other places–especially along the northern Mediterranean coast–the land was swept clean of humanity. You never know about fleas.
Think of it… Fleas had been feeding off rats happily for ages when somehow they became infected with the Yersinia pestis bacteria which, transferred from the flea’s stomach to the bloodstream of the rat, promptly killed the rat. Then the fleas, starving, leapt onto the next most common mammal, people, and killed them off. That left the fleas hostless and at the mercy of the frigid European winters. Death came quickly. And when fleas died, Yersinia pestis died with it. The Black Plague was a disaster for everyone involved. People, rats, fleas and bacteria, everybody. Not a good business model.
Without doing any research at all, and in the true spirit of the Internet, I wonder what triggered this whole catastrophe. Maybe Yersinia pestis had been in rat guts for ages, but there’d been a genetic mutation–bacteria mutate at an astonishing rate–that suddenly rendered one gnarly. The flea it occupied then killed its rat host. Oops. The flea jumped ship. Another rat died. Meanwhile said flea was reproducing with the usual abandon, each baby flea carrying the mutated Yersinia pestis, and each killing its rat host. Every time a rat died the flea had to find another rat, and on and on. Soon rats are dying all over the place. Then people. I should mention that In people the plague could turn pneumonic, that is spread simply by coughing, no flea bite required at all, like a bubonic flu*. Then the thing really took off. All because some gene mutated just once in a Yersinia pestis . Again, I profess no expertise in this whatsoever. But this is the internet.
Or it could have been a parasite. I don’t mean the flea as a parasite, but something parasitizing the flea, a parasite within a parasite. Parasites make their hosts do strange things. Even a parasite with a bacterium for a host. Or maybe it was a virus that caused a change in the DNA of Yersinia pestis which rendered it fatal to rats and people. Again, this is baseless extrapolation, but this is the internet, and the weirdness of nature is fun to think about. But enough of this.
I think about fleas and I think about plague and am filled with terror. Then I remember that one of the Rothschilds, with all her money, was the greatest flea-ologist ever. Ever. She wasn’t even an entomologist (or more specifically, a siphonapterist), she just had a thing about fleas. Imagine her vast but tiny little collection. Imagine a Rothschild, with all her money, bounding after a flea bounding. The rich are different from you and I.
* I’m leaving out the rarer septicemic variant, as it is simply too ghastly to think about.
From Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Pantheon, 1999); in Chapter 3, “Underlying Mysteries of Development”, pp 64-65.
In an unrivaled reproductive success story, expeditions of leaf-cutting and harvester ants blaze trails across the forest floor, while battalions of army ants terrorize mammals in their path. Bees and wasps dot trees with their nests, and termites infest rotting wood. One-third of the animal biomass [total weight of living things] of the Amazonian rain forest teems, climbs, and swarms with billions upon billions of these social insects.
The secret to their success is, quite simply, the most dedicated and efficient daycare in the biosphere [total area of where life exists on earth: on the surface, underground, underwater, in the air, and inside each other]. So what if some army-ant queens can lay up to two million eggs? A woman starts out her life with more than three times [7 million] that many egg cells [an egg is an egg cell; even an ostrich egg is one cell]. It’s not the insect queen’s fecundity that is so special, it’s her success rate translating eggs into adult survivors. What makes social insects so amazing is the dedicated assistance of all those allomothers [sociobiological jargon for nannies]. Even if the mother dies, so long as the colony persists, her progeny will be cared for. It is a mother-centered world geared toward one aim: the survival of progeny.
In a sense, then, humans (and most mammals, I’d reckon) are similar to marine invertebrates (like clams, for instance) whose females release vast numbers of eggs in order that at least one survives to adulthood. Of course, marine invertebrate males also fertilize huge numbers of those eggs, from many females. (I’ve tried explaining this option to my wife to no avail.) Without water as a medium in which to expel all those eggs and all that milt, most human eggs are never given the opportunity to be fertilized. Then again, the extremely small amount of eggs that humans (and mammals) do allow to be fertilized have a much better chance of reaching adulthood (that is, reproductive age) than do all those millions of eggs released by marine invertebrates, the vast majority of which are eaten or drift away or die. But ants and their entomological ilk have mastered a way to not only fertilize vast amounts of the egg cells the female contains in her, but to ensure that nearly all of them are raised to adulthood. In human terms, one woman would mate with one man and his sperm would fertilize all seven million eggs she has within her (not at once though, the sperm would be retained and used one sperm cell at a time as the babies are conceived.) The babies, fetuses only minutes from conception, would be expelled (i.e., born…marsupials “give birth” this way, a tiny, undeveloped fetus leaving the reproductive tract and making for the pouch) and raised by allomothers, all of whom would have to be prevented from breeding themselves to prevent massive over-population. (Social insects use chemical agents that repress sexual capability, as well as killing excess queens; some honey bee workers occasionally do lay eggs but the eggs are killed.) The naked mole rat of Africa is the only mammal known to use a reproductive strategy like that of the ants, with a queen, sterile workers, etc. (They even live in tunnels underground like ants, but like other mammals only allow a tiny number of egg cells to be fertilized and born.) HOWEVER…there have been many examples of human societies that control reproduction among their own kind, in myriad ways. The recent scandal caused by that Mormon colony in present day Arizona where polygamy is practiced and extra males (always teens) are banished and driven out (sometimes literally driven out, to be dropped off alone in neighboring towns) is just a recent variant on this.
Far more brutal a human method is starving a population. Consider the Nazis, they deliberately starved the Slavic peoples in the Ostlands (Poland and Russia) they had conquered. They needed some Slavs alive to serve as slaves, but a carefully managed population size, used as a resource to be managed like any other resource. Reducing food supplies not only would kill off excess adults and newborns (which it did, dramatically), but also severely reduce the actual rate of reproduction, since reproduction is reduced dramatically when food is scarce (a handy built-in biological comtrol.) People die off, babies stop coming, and more room opens up for food production to support the planned increase in German population. And that population would be increased by a state mandated increase in female fertility–women would have more babies. Indeed lots more babies. If necessary, one man could father babies by multiple women. The Aryan race would thrive and increase, Nazi genes would spread across Europe.
Now it gets weird. In the Nazi totalitarian Reich all Aryans were obedient members, obedient subjects, their very existence one with the State. (On a good day, anyway, but that was the idea.) All Germans were of the German race, the Volk. The Volk and the Reich were the same. Their genes were of the Volk and thereby belonged to the State. The Nazi State–that is, the Reich–was like one organism, all it’s reproduction was the Volk’s reproduction, and the Volk itself was like the queen ant, creating endless generations of genetically perfect Aryan supermen, and the state was the allomother. It was a bizarre mirror image of an ant colony. And as ridiculous as this all sounds, it could probably have passed for a position paper written up by an RSHA intellectual and sent off to Heydrich and then Himmler for comment.
Thankfully the Nazis were annihilated so none of this could be put into practice. We’ll never know just how feasible it was. Somewhere, no doubt, someone regrets that. But genetics itself put a limit on the notion a generations of Aryan perfection. You’d have to be pretty strict in weeding out variation. No doubt someone regrets that too. Of course, eggs can be implanted now. A small group of Nazi mothers could have their perfect Aryan eggs installed into women to gestate the perfect Aryan babies. The state would take over upon birth, impressing Aryan values onto Nazi babies from the very beginning. Embryo implantation would have been a perfect solution to the problem. My god why am I thinking about this? I began thinking about ants.
What terrifying possibilities lie within an ant colony for the future of mankind. Read enough E.O. Wilson (try Journey to the Ants) and you’ll get the creeps, the little bastards start looking dangerous. Wars of annihilation, colonies as big as California, an overwhelming and ominous ant-ness. But there was a time when no one really thought of them that way. They were just amazingly organized little creatures, quite charming. I remember reading a classic text, the Social Insects, way back in my college days, not sure where I’d found it. Ants seemed like these fabulous little civilizations all about our feet. I’d watch them do their scurrying around thing and think gosh, amazing. I found another classic text, written between the wars, in the old Downtown L.A. Library. This was before the fire, the singed fluttering pages, the visions of Alexandria. I sat in the garden outside, feeling vaguely ancient Greek, reading about ant civilizations and wondering as they marched endlessly past my feet. They were Argentine ants, they were everywhere, but the vastness of the colony was unknown then. Not even imagined, actually. I saw tiny little city states, a colony by the tree there, another under a nearby shrub, others trailing between ant portals dug in the cracks in the sidewalk. Instead it was an empire of several hundred square human miles. I’d eat my liverwurst sandwich and drink my lemonade and disappear into a fascinating ant world, trying not to think about my shit job at the brokerage firm. Or was it at the law firm where I spent all day in a small office with a drop dead gorgeous Assyrian girl with long powerful legs and perfect breasts. I wanted to mate with her. I didn’t, but wanted to. The ants at my feet there in the library garden never wanted to mate with anybody. Only a few of the male ants did, and they were not outside the colony working. But when the weather was fine the males would fly in scattered swarms trying to find a little ant queenling to fuck in wild desperation and then die. I wanted to mate with the Assyrian girl too, but, well, maybe mate isn’t the term. I wasn’t thinking offspring. Actually I wasn’t even thinking. I wasn’t even twenty five and my testicles were doing half my thinking then. The fear of death was what would happen if I did mate with her and the wife found out. Which just goes to show you how different my world was from an ant colony. Or from Nazi race ideology. Himmler would take one look at a big, strapping, fit Celto-Aryan like me and the last thing he’d want would be for me to mate with an Assyrian girl., no matter how long the legs or perfect the breasts. (Ridiculous hair though, the early 80’s was a bad time for young women’s hair.) What a waste all my Aryan milt would be. Think of the Aryan supermen I might father, he’d say, in that reedy little voice of his, and you wanna create little half Celto-Aryan half middle eastern untermenschkins? Had I no sense of volkisch respect? What part of the Nuremberg rally had I missed?
But I was just being a normal horny young stud. Himmler was a berzerk ideologue. Channeling horny young studs into a genetically mapped out master plan is just, I dunno, too weird. Unnatural. Wrong. For people anyway. But lo the ant…. just be thankful they are so small. Were ants big, smart, and Nazi there wouldn’t be a human left on the planet. We would have been cleansed a long time ago. Exterminated. Eaten. To Serve Ants. It’s a cookbook.
Noticed some pharaoh ants, Monomorium pharaonis, crawling on me (and my desk) lately. Just a couple. I followed them across the desk with a magnifying glass. They are incredibly small (maybe a sixteenth of an inch long) and a nearly transparent yellowish-brown, with a darker abdomen. Unlike the colonies of the ubiquitous Argentine ant (Linepithema humile) that extend along nearly the entire coast of California, pharaoh ant colonies typically number a few hundred tiny individuals and just a couple queens, and basically you have to try hard to notice them. I have no idea how long they’ve been on or in or around my desk.
Of course I looked them up. I love ants and have a small library on myrmecology–the study of ants–among my other compendia of useless knowledge. This time I went tooling across Google to see what I could find and I found this incredibly fascinating article from a few years ago in Pacific Standard: Bedbugs Have Evolved to Live With Mankind. It’s about bed bugs–did you know there were originally bat bugs?–and not ants, but it mentions their natural enemies. And apparently their number one enemy is, of all things, these tiny little pharaoh ants. Pharaoh ant queens have a thing for bed bugs, and their subjects hunt the annoying little bloodsucking beasts down mercilessly. No matter how thin a hiding place the beg bugs cram themselves into, the tiny pharaoh ants can get in there and drag them out. They are so effective at this that a pharaoh ant infestation can quickly annihilate a population of bed bugs. Which is what they did for centuries for us. Until, that is, we began keeping cleaner households, and then spraying them with insecticide. Unfortunately for human beings, bed bugs are resistant to almost any bug spray. Pharaoh ants are not. As indoor pharaoh ant populations faded with the chemical assault–helped along by the rise of voracious and hugely numerous Argentine ants–beg bug populations rebounded. Nature is funny that way.
So I think I’ll let my pharaoh ants hang around. They’re almost impossible to see and just a minor annoyance at best. And who knows what critters might be hiding in or behind or under my desk, even–cringe–bed bugs. They are everywhere the bedbug experts tell us. You never know how bed bugs can get into your home, your bedroom, your office, and will never know where they came from. There seems to be no way of stopping them. But a colony of incredibly tiny ants might just do the trick. Nothing is biting me. Not in the house anyway. Maybe it because of these tiny ants. Outside I am at the mercy of nature. But inside, I am protected by the pharaohs.