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Continuing On Learning About Ants

Ants are doubly annoying because the minute I started checking, they taught me how dreadfully ignorant I am. Definitely on the subject of ants.

Unless you too are in the habit of picking one up to squash it (there are spots shoes don’t reach), you might not know they bite — and sting. They have long (well, for an ant) mandibles (the illustration shows what appears as two long curved teeth) which can be used for defense. But they also have a “sting” at the end of their back end and I suspect that’s what I feel. Not anything to cry about but an unpleasant surprise nonetheless.

What I definitely did not know was that ants are related to wasps and bees. Like bees, they live in colonies with a complex social structure. Sterile females make up a wingless worker caste whose job it is to gather food (aha! my guests!), keep up and defend the nest and also take care of the eggs, larvae and pupae. A reproductive caste includes all the winged fertile females and males. Occasionally they will come out of the nest and do a brief mating flight. Once the flight’s over, the males die (sorry, that’s how it goes) and the gals shed their wings and return to start a new colony. Cooperation is the key for all work together for the betterment of the colony’s inhabitants.

And, yes, they do bite and sting. Does that make it any less hurting now that I know it’s just the workers off to do their job? Don’t believe it for a moment.

Those teeny tiny ants already have their own column scheduled for next February. I’d noted about them that “unlike their larger cousins, these little guys don’t seem to have any friends. Relatives? Not that I can see. Just loners — and not too many of them. Fortunately. Yet. That was written March fifth. The little guys are still here. I might see two together (date night?) but they seems satisfied doing their own thing. I swear I remember one time when I watched in horror as a long black line of moving ants crossed a shelf near me. That has never occurred again (and now it seems rather unlikely).

Wikipedia mentions a study that suggests ants arose up to 168 million years ago. They’ve been found in 99 million year-old amber. It wasn’t, however, until flowering plants appeared about 100 million years ago that they diversified. By just 60 million years ago they assumed ecological dominance. Some believe the primitive ones lived underneath the soil.

So successful has been their social organizing that they can modify their habitats. tap new resources and defend themselves. (I do have a spray.) Because of their success they can be found everywhere except Antarctica (with that name, you’d rather expect to find them there) and a few islands such as Greenland, Iceland, parts of Polynesia and Hawaii.

When an ant is on the move it leaves a trail of pheromones that help it find its way back home. Crush one and it’ll emit an alarm pheromone that calls ants from far away, sending all into an attack frenzy. (Now they tell me! And, no, it is not an activity I’ve witnessed — gratefully.)

Not interfered with by me or others, the queen can live up to thirty years, workers one to three. Males? Sorry, men. A queen can easily produce millions of offspring.

We know they’re edible though I doubt if they have any medicinal value. (I’ve been writing about too many plants!)

Many of us recall ant farms, glass covered small wood boxes with, as I recall, a myriad of carved trails. I read they were popular for about twenty years starting in the late fifties. I suspect they found their way into many a home. I know we had one earlier than that for my brother and I were off to school by the mid-fifties.

I know they’re intelligent — at least smart enough to try to escape my feet. They have their uses. And, yes, there is much to admire. There must be.

But I still don’t like them.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts following in 2014. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.

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