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Right in Our Backyard: Rye’s Getting “Antsy”

field ant-bSpring has seemed well on its way the past couple of weeks. For most people, signs of spring are seeing and hearing birds returning back from southern climes, and the popping up of all kinds of flowers and shoots, not to mention the dropping of silver and red maple tree flowers all over decks, sidewalks, and lawns.

 

By Bill Lawyer

 

field ant-bSpring has seemed well on its way the past couple of weeks. For most people, signs of spring are seeing and hearing birds returning back from southern climes, and the popping up of all kinds of flowers and shoots, not to mention the dropping of silver and red maple tree flowers all over decks, sidewalks, and lawns.

 

A week ago, I became aware of a less-often mentioned, but equally common sign of spring: the emergence of ant hills on just about any pervious surface in Rye. 

 

Now I’m not claiming to be an expert on ants and their way of life, so let’s see what scientists have to say. According to the National Geographic Society, well over 10,000 species have so far been identified on earth. 

 

Only a few scientists in the world have met up with a small fraction of that number in the wild. Noted Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson is one. Back in 1990 he co-authored an “encyclopedic” study of ants from all around the world.

 

I have spent time watching ants in parts of the United States; in tropical areas such as the Philippines, Trinidad, and Puerto Rico; and in Israel — which has over 220 species — mostly on the coastal plain, the Dead Sea area (where I saw a few species), and upper Galilee. 

 

Since Greek and Roman times, people have studied these tiny but powerful anthropods and learned from them. The Bible, in <Proverbs 6:6>, tells us to “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”

 

Of course, not all ants are helpful to humans. I’ve been stung once or twice in Florida by fire ants. And no one wants to have carpenter ants around.

 

ant hillI became aware of the springtime emergence of mounds of ants in my backyard as a kid, and I have to admit I occasionally swept the swarming, miniscule creatures away with a broom. 

 

But I soon came to realize that ants are here to stay, nearly everywhere.  They quietly go about their subterranean tunnels and chambers, digging up soil and bringing it to the surface. 

 

The general consensus among scientists is that the reason for ants’ success in adapting to nearly every part of the world is the social nature of their lifestyle. While there are some variations among species, all ants live in colonies, and they have evolved a systematic distribution of tasks, working together for the good of the whole colony. Scientists say that ants in a nest should not been seen as separate organisms, but as one “super organism.”

 

When I was in Trinidad, staying in a nature center on the northern end of the island, I saw for the first time the behavior of what are known locally there as “parasol” ants. They get this name from the way they pick leaves off trees and then transport them back to their nest by holding them over their heads. But they don’t need a parasol — they are just bringing them back so other workers can chew them up and then convert them to food. That’s why they are also called, more prosaically, leaf-cutter ants.

 

A 2014 BBC show explained that leaf-cutter ants grow their own food in underground fungus farms. Pieces of leaf are carried hundreds of meters in impressive processions, with each ant carrying a piece up to 50 times its body weight. That’s like one of us carrying a medium-sized van.

 

The leaves are used to create fungus gardens that feed the whole colony — “millions and millions of ants. Soldiers protect the huge nest and the irreplaceable queen at all costs.” 

 

Ants have inspired poets and philosophers alike, with such stories as the “Ant and the Grasshopper” and the fictional (so far at least) giant, mutant ants created in the areas where the U.S. tested atomic and hydrogen bombs. 

 

One of my kids’ favorite songs growing up was “High Hopes,” which contains a verse about ants and a rubber tree plant:

 

“Just what makes that little old ant

Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant

Anyone knows an ant, can’t

Move a rubber tree plant

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes

He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes

So any time your gettin’ low

‘Stead of lettin’ go

Just remember that ant

Oops there goes another rubber tree plant….”

 

We could all learn a lesson like that, studying ants, right in our backyards.

 

For a closer look at life on an ant hill, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=rocDg_TjhzQ.

 


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