By Fred Seitz
Most of us enjoy summer outdoor gatherings with friends and food, but often we get swarms of uninvited guests who consume much of our grub and seldom leave, even when we let them know they’re less than welcome. These six-legged Formicidae, aka ants, creep on our picnic tables — as well as our feet — in their relentless quest to share our meals. Adding insult to injury, they often follow us home after the meal they have already disrupted, smuggling themselves in our leftovers and cruising around our furniture.
While these party animals may irritate us, we must acknowledge that their ancestors beat us to the big party, originally showing up about 168 million years ago. And now ants creep across every continent on Earth except for Antarctica (though I suspect a few may have hitched a ride in supplies sent to researchers working there). There are an estimated 22,000 species of ants, including the infamous army ants that have gotten much of their negative PR from films that sensationalize them. Most ant species live in tropical regions, and even they are close relatives of our local ants.
Five types of ants are most common in our local area: carpenter ants, odorous house ants, thief ants, acrobat ants and pavement ants. While I do not consider any of these desirable roommates, carpenter ants get my vote for most annoying, given their predilection to destroy wood (especially damp wood). A close second in despicability might be the odorous house ants. When crushed, these little folks smell like rotting fruit, and they have a distinct propensity for invading kitchens and munching on sweets and other available treats. Thief ants are very small and can be brown, black or yellow. Acrobat ants have a tendency to raise their heart-shaped abdomen. Pavement ants are notable for nesting in the cracks of sidewalks and other concrete structures. I believe that the pavement ants are the ones who build the familiar anthills made of sand and other soil.
These locals have periodically been joined by invaders from some southern states, including harvester ants, which gather seeds and parts of plants — their food. Their underground chambers help aerate the soil. A more insidious invader is the fire ant, whose sting is quite painful and a deterrent to predators and curious humans.
While ants may have a variety of less-than-appealing qualities, they have a formal (if not rigid) social structure, as well as a talent for architecture and adaptability. And they demonstrate relatively sophisticated communication (mainly through pheromones). Hence, ants demonstrate qualities that people often commend in themselves.
That said, we may be less willing to acknowledge another commonality we have with these minuscule neighbors — a propensity for making war, both within and between colonies. I remember, when I was growing up, my parents gave me an ant colony to tend and observe. In a moment of curiosity, I added a few ants from the back porch — a swift battle ensued, as my introduced invaders were quickly attacked by those in the colony.
The ants I owned were army ants, and they exemplify the ant’s warrior ethos. When these ants perceive a different group of ants or some unwelcome animal, they organize and attack as a single unit. Like some other types of ants, army ants can sting, but they also use their large mandibles to attack and dismember those who threaten them.
Lest we be too hard on them, we should remember that our persistent picnic- and kitchen-raiding neighbors are themselves a source of food for many other animals — birds, reptiles, spiders, bears, coyotes and even some humans — intentionally or accidentally. Still, when we encounter hordes of these pesky critters at our picnics and in our homes, our own war-like impulses towards them are understandable.