An Ant’s Life is No Picnic

Ants tunneling through a formicarium
Ants tunneling through a formicarium Wikimedia Commons

My wife told me it was a bad idea. I should have listened. The subject was ant farms. Matthew, my 6-year-old, desperately wanted one. Truth be told, I did, too. I remembered the one I'd had as a boy. Inside was a miniature plastic farm with a tiny windmill, silo and barn sitting atop a warren of tunnels teeming with activity. There were lessons to be learned from ants. They were models of industriousness and teamwork. An ant farm, I argued, would be a colony of virtues. And so I surprised Matthew one afternoon by bringing home an ant farm.

This farm came with what it cheerfully called an "Ant Certificate" which, for the modest price of $1.50, could be redeemed for real live ants. All I had to do was send away to some place out West. A few weeks later, a small yellow envelope arrived. In bold blue letters, it warned, "Keep from extreme heat & cold! This package contains Western Harvester Ants."

Inside was a narrow plastic vial with a message taped to the side: "CAUTION: ANTS CAN STING!" Then there was this: "CAUTION: DO NOT TOUCH ANTS. Their sting may cause swelling and itching, especially for those allergic to stings. Adult supervision recommended." These ants, the instructions said, were the best to observe because "they are aggressive."

Matthew watched as I gently tapped the vial, sliding the ants into their new abode. One particularly feisty ant climbed out of the top and tried to make a break for it. I stopped him with the soft pulpy ball of my index finger. I felt a shooting pain as a stinger at the end of the ant's gaster pierced my skin, injecting me with formic acid. After barely smothering a curse, I smiled at Matthew and only later, out of view, dressed my wound. These truly were ants from hell.

For several days, the new ants prospered, excavating tunnels and carting off our offerings of fruit and chocolate Girl Scout cookies. Then, one by one, they began to sicken and die. We offered the survivors more water, pears instead of apples, a few hours of indirect sunlight. And still they died.

I consulted the instructions. "You will be amazed at what these little engineers can do!" But Matthew and I were less than amazed. We sadly eyed the pile of dead bugs and one lone survivor.

About this time, something odd happened. We began to have ants in the kitchen. First just one or two strays, then more. These were not escapees from the farm, but the indigenous species — our own Marylandis kitchenesis. They flourished. Across the countertops they formed an endless processional, carrying off crumbs and congregating at spills, especially droplets of soda and maple syrup. Their numbers exploded. We put out ant traps, tiny toxic motels set along their trails. They ignored them. We bombed them with a pesticide and still they came.

Matthew was captivated. We were now living in an ant farm. He utterly forgot about the last remaining harvester ant. Alone, I attempted to nurse the survivor, who staggered across what had become a plastic Boot Hill. Meanwhile, my wife and I were daily grinding the wild ants under heel, or snuffing them out with paper towels, or subjecting them to ever more toxic agents. Rescue and exterminate, rescue and exterminate. It was sheer madness.

On Tuesday, the ant farm went out with the trash. The wild ants continue to plague us, a reminder that nature is rarely compliant and neither to be contained nor managed. Matthew, take note. The lesson may have been unintended, but it is no less valuable.

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