Learning From the Ants

by Kathryn Smith

Beneath my patio, a silent upheaval. Silent to me, though the ants hear it in their own way, a vibration humming their legs, a pheromone alert in their antennae.


The signals they give are clear: The colony has outgrown itself. A colony cannot serve two queens. The colony must divide. They leave in a cloud, what looks like exodus, swarming like their honeybee cousins leaving the hive.


Sometimes they war. Two colonies didn’t know they existed peacefully in such close proximity until one ant ventures too far. They fight their battles on the limestone patio, head to head, mandible to mandible. No drone warfare for these creatures. Exoskeleton as armor. No weapons but their own bodies.


Ants are social insects. This word, “social.” It does not mean they are good at making friends. It does not mean they have good small-talk skills. It means they only survive together, by following the rigid order of things. By following trails of pheromone signals, one scent toward food, another away from danger. Keeping others from danger and giving their bodies, if they need to, as food for the group. Working together to gather sustenance, to build a nest. Doing the work that’s been designated to them. “Social” as in “socialism.” Not as in having a lot of Twitter followers.


These social ants are disturbing my social life, their definition of social at war with mine. They’re bulging the cut limestone I so carefully installed, my partner and I digging out sod and then soil, tamping gravel and hauling in sand. So many wheelbarrowfuls of gravel and sand. Sand the ants now labor out, grain by grain, from between the stones we laid in a precalculated pattern, the level laid every which direction to ensure a flat surface, a place beneath the shade of volunteer maples where we’ll circle the patio chairs, set the table, and raise a glass with friends. Subterranean order undermining surface-level order. One society versus another.


Not long ago, I watched a deer and a raccoon face off in my parents’ front yard, a careful dance at dusk on a grassy plot. They didn’t seem to expect each other, yet both animals had grown accustomed to the human audience, paying no mind as my parents, my spouse, and I gawked at their encounter from behind a plate-glass window 10, maybe 15 feet away. You hear stories of more dangerous creatures—cougars or bears, usually—encroaching on housing developments that have encroached on the animals’ territory, the beasts threatening the neighborhood’s safety while the humans threaten the animals’ security. It is harder to coexist when the concerned species are roughly the same size, or at least proportionally close, and when they occupy the same strata, the same above-ground spaces. With ants, what we see above ground, what’s raiding my patio, is the proverbial tip of the proverbial iceberg of their underground nests.


The ants aren’t really a threat. A nuisance, an annoyance, a thing that bites, a bite that stings. But no, not a threat. Nor are they threatened, these insects with a foothold in every continent but Antarctica, their 22,000 species making up a fifth of the terrestrial animal kingdom. In terms of biomass, there are more ants than there are vertebrates. (How do we even know that? I imagine entomologists piling ants on a scale, calculating how many per ounce, how many per cubic inch.) What does this teach us about being social, about co-existing as species that share this Earth? I am neither scientist nor philosopher; I am a person, a specimen homo sapiens, who likes to observe things. (Introverted and so by some estimations antisocial, though not by the ants’ definition.) I like to crouch to the earth and watch the ants at war, their grappling in twos and threes. It may seem morbid, but it’s not the killing I’m drawn to. I like to imagine what it would be like to act wholly on instinct, to not think your way out of doing what the signals around you tell you must be done. Perhaps I think the ants can teach me how to live less fearfully. Or maybe they live only by fear.


Has anyone ever quoted William Stafford to talk about ants? Stafford’s poem “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” ends with these lines: “the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe— / should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” Ants and their clear signals bring these lines to mind. I wonder what we can learn from them, from the ants, how we could better navigate the darkness that surrounds us by being clear with one another—whether working or warring, feeding or exiling. Ants are no model for peace, but in their clear signals, they create a model for honesty. Our life, like the ants’, is lived together, so perhaps we could learn from them to live deliberately as social creatures, working together as fully as they do—humans among humans, humans among hymenoptera among some 8 million Earthbound species, one body, many, many working parts.

Kathryn Smith received her BA from Whitworth in 1999 and her MFA in creative writing from Eastern Washington University in 2004. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Rock & Sling, The Cresset, Floating Bridge Review and RiverLit, as well as local anthologies. She sometimes thinks she might have been an entomologist were it not for the existence of earwigs.

Ant image is from here.


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