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.
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.