Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Consider Her Ways

My son, who does not like bugs in general, has been fascinated by ants since he was very young (he just turned 17). This year for Christmas he wanted an ant farm, so I ordered one made by AntWorks. It is based on the experiments that NASA used to monitor ant activity in micro-gravity.

The simple kit had an acrylic habitat about 1" to 1 1/2" wide and maybe 8" tall, with an air-tight sealing lid. It's filled about 5/6ths of the way with a clear aqua gel that looks like blue Jello, and comes with a booklet, a hole-starting tool, magnifying tools and an order form for ants. They do warn that especially during very hot or very cold months it may take a while to get the ants, as extreme conditions can affect their health.

Ours came on Saturday, just as my son was leaving for his science-fiction club's game night. He's a sweet-natured boy and asked me to get them started, as he didn't want them to have to stay in their tiny vial any longer than necessary. So I read the set-up instructions, and made four holes in the gel, two of the about 1" deep and two about 1/2" deep. Then I dumped in the ants and put on the lid. The gel is a nutrient containing sugar, water and protein, ants' main nutritional requirements. It was stiffer than Jello, obviously, so it doesn't melt, almost the consistency of a gummy bear. So the stuff is both food and tunneling material. The booklet said it could take 24 to 48 hours for the ants to adjust from their trip, get used to the new environment and start tunneling. One was dead, the other 30 or so were viable. I didn't want to remove the dead one (they were too crowded in the shipping vial to tell how many survived) until the ants had done some tunneling and were not all examining the surface. The main reason we hadn't gotten an ant farm before was that I didn't want a little flimsy thing that would break or spill and lead to ants all over the house.

It was interesting to watch their priorities. First, not surprisingly, was a snack. They all took tiny little bites of the stuff, barely scratching the surface. Next they split into groups. One group explored every inch of the exposed acrylic looking for an escape route. Another cut tiny pieces from one of the holes I'd started, and blocked the two 1/2" holes. The third group, I suppose to prove that all creatures are persnickety, moved the dead body to block the other 1" hole.
After the explorers reported in that there didn't seem to be any other outlets, they started digging a bit. Two or three scouts continued to explore the exposed sides and lids. Three brave tunnelers started to work. Most of the others began clearing one corner of the gel, moving it to the top of the opposite side of the housing. And then disaster struck.

The three tunnelers hadn't made their tunnel quite wide enough, and about a third of the way down got trapped in the sticky gel. It took a little time for the rest to realize their peril, but when they did the entire colony went to work to free the trapped miners. Some widened the tunnel and the corner, some tunneled almost exclusively, some passed the removed gel chunks up the line, passing it along ant to ant, some exclusively removed gel chunks to the far side of the housing, and some both tunneled and moved gel. The first trapped ant was freed fairly quickly, the second took a bit longer. But the third was really stuck.

She was in a little ball and couldn't straighten out. She was completely covered with the stuff, from the fallout of those working above her. All the ants worked frantically, gouging a large section out of that corner. When they got to the point where they could touch her, the first thing they did was let several of the colony touch her, as if they were reassuring her. Then they tried pulling her out. The gel was too strong. My son got home, and we watched the last hour or so of the drama together. Her colony cleaned off her mandibles and head and antennae, then tried pulling again. She was still stuck. They widened the tunnel, and cleaned off more of her, until she could straighten out. Finally, they managed to free her completely.
My son and I gave a little cheer as she shakily climbed up the by now very wide opening. When she got to the top, every ant in the colony came and touched her, as if checking to see that she was all right.

By this time they had lots of excess gel chunks, so they moved the dead body and filled up the hole I'd made with the stuff they'd cut.

I told my husband about it, adding that friends and family held candlelight vigils for her and the whole group was praying for her safe rescue. It was gross anthropomorphizing, I know, and yet it was dramatic, emotional and touching. When I see other creatures, I tend not to think how very different from us they are, but instead how very alike we all are.

"Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise..."

Proverbs 6:6

(It never ceases to amaze me that even thousands of years ago humans realized that most ants were female.)

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