. . . Peterson’s
calls them ‘social creatures,’ yet what grim
society: identical pilgrims,
seed-like, brittle, pausing on the path
only three seconds to touch another’s
face, some hoisting the papery carcasses
of their dead in their jaws, which open and close
like the clasp of a necklace.
Ants by Joanie Mackowski
It’s starting to feel like summer now–Minnesota springs are a short and unpredictable affair–and one of the sure signs that things are warming up beneath ground is the sudden activity of ants.
At the bus stop this morning, I noticed a swarm of them running along the seam in the sidewalk. When the kids joined me down on my hands and knees over the ants’ busy errands, we noticed that they were traveling a two-lane highway between twin hills on either side of the sidewalk. Surely there’s some huge subterranean metropolis underneath the sidewalk itself, where the queen is busy producing more citizens to go about their constant work. These are tiny ants, smaller than a fingernail clipping, and the queen’s flight must have gone unnoticed a week or two ago.
We all know Aesop’s story of the “Ants and the Grasshopper,” in which the diligent ants are shown to be better adapted to winter survival than the profligate grasshopper, who spends a lazy summer playing and singing when he should be storing food away for lean times. In the Disney version, the ant is invited into the queen’s court where he earns his food by fiddling for the colony; in the original version, though, the grasshopper (or cricket or dung beetle; versions vary) is cast back into the cold when he comes begging, we assume to die in a snowbank. In any case, it’s one of those stories that we’ve interpreted as having a message that is not only practical but moral.
Less well known is Aesop’s fable of Ants and the Pigs. Like the grasshopper’s ants, this is another colony that spends all summer hard at work, collecting grain for the winter. But in the fall, a herd of pigs descends on the colony and gobbles up their stores. The moral, it would seem, is that the miserly gathering of material wealth is vanity: all our efforts will be for naught against the rapaciousness of thieves.
Taking moral lessons from insects is probably unwise. In more recent times, E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, which grew in part out of his work with ants, was given a simplistic just-so-story interpretation and attacked as neo-Social Darwinism. (Wilson’s approach wasn’t so different from the anarchist Petr Kropotkin’s in Mutual Aid, though Wilson was armed with better scientific methods and skills of observation.) Ants are intrinsically interesting, have yielded a lot of useful information about chemical communication, and are a good distraction for kids waiting at the bus stop, but not a very useful metaphor for human behavior.
After the bus came, the dog and I continued on our morning walk, no doubt hurrying past many more Formicidaen cities. We didn’t notice, and I suspect that the ants didn’t notice, either.