I’ll tell you who’s not so hot at social distancing. Ants, that’s who. Bloody ants. All over the place. All over each other. Obviously an ants nest would be impractical if they had to socially distance to the tune of 2 metres, but they should at least work out what 2 metres is in ant size and then apply that as a rule of thumb. It would probably work out in the region of a few millimetres (which is even less than a thumb, maybe an Action Man thumb) but I’m not going to calculate it now because why should I be responsible for such a crucial bit of number crunching? I think I’m onto something here and I can sense that you’re with me on this so let’s see if we can’t unlock the reckless flouting of rules that the ant community has chosen to express.
I’ve spent the whole summer working and living with several groups of ants. I say living, but that’s not quite true because unless I can unwrap the laws of physics getting me comfortably into an ants nest is always going to be a problem. So let’s just say I’ve been living in close proximity to ants. In the environs of an ant or two. My main group of focus has been a large community that I named Patio Cohort #1. There was a Patio Cohort #2, since you ask, but they were a bit more sheepish (insofar as ants can be sheepish: it is rare indeed to find a sheep being antish) and then, I think, got soaked up into Patio Cohort #1 anyway. Whether Patio Cohort #1 call themselves that is something I have yet to establish; I have a GCSE in French but that’s about as far as I can go with languages. Other groups in our garden include the Apple Tree Cohort, the Brick Barbeque Cohort and the mythical ‘Where The Fuck Do They Keep Coming From!?’ Cohort.
I first became aware of Patio Cohort #1 in late March, just as the lockdown was making an impact. I had been restricted to one trip out per day and the firm instruction to physically avoid everyone else as if they exhaled raw sewage. These impositions would have been far easier to swallow had I not been chortled at on a daily basis by the hundreds of ants that would dance around on the patio and its immediate surroundings every time I came near their little compound. I saw absolutely no evidence of social distancing and until the magnifying glass arrives I can’t tell for sure if they’re compensating for this by applying heavy layers of PPE, but I get the feeling I already know the answer – balls to PPE, that’s what they’re saying. And that’s exactly the kind of cavalier attitude I’ve come to expect from animals that think their vulnerability to Covid19 is reduced just because they don’t have lungs. Bloody typical.
We all know that ants are very well organised and collectively are able to solve very complex problems (relatively speaking, I assume). So organised in fact that they have managed to get through the coronavirus crisis with barely a scratch, and I resent that. I read once that there are a million ants on the planet for every person, but surely that’s just not something that anyone can ever say for sure. However, just for the hell of it, if that’s true and Covid19 had quickly found a way to mutate and effectively infiltrate the ant world, or indeed any member of the Hymenoptera order, then they wouldn’t feel so cocky now. For every human death so far you’d expect that number to be multiplied by a million and that is a loss that I suspect the ant elders would find very hard to explain at the next AGM.
One stamp of the foot and up they would come. They may have been busy undermining the structural integrity of my patio most of the time but they were pretty quick to throw up some cannon fodder at the drop of a very small hat. You can’t have a patio covered in ants and one very small hat; it would be itchy and what would the neighbours say? Covid19 may not have scared Patio Cohort #1 but it soon became apparent (or should I say apparant?) that something had to be done. Ant powder is one solution but you have to think about the safety of any nearby stupid pets who in their ignorance might ingest such a poison. I took a quick inventory and counted as many as one stupid pet in our household and that was enough to put me right off powder and spray. Alas, once those options are gone you really have to start getting ‘old school’.
In the days before fire and kettles our ancestors could only deal with ants by either moving cave or by hand to hand combat with each individual ant. Clearing a nest of half a million ants using the ‘one by one’ method was scarily time consuming, not to mention fraught with danger, and explains why early humans took so long to develop other breakthroughs such as agriculture, Tizer and hair straighteners. Only once fire had been mastered and it was possible to boil water did the ants finally meet their match. And this is why the ants in turn have been so slow to develop machines such as the crossbow or the seed drill – they’re too busy working (fruitlessly, I hasten to add) on effective flood control and coolant systems. The day that ants can fully resist a kettle full of scalding water surging through their carefully crafted corridors will perhaps never come, but to give Patio Cohort #1 their fair dues they didn’t give in without a fight.
Several times they managed to rebuild their nest and as they did so my resentment flickered towards admiration but, on reflection, I was getting tired of the buggers and so the war of attrition continued until one day recently I stamped the patio and there was no reaction. No counter attack. No skirmish or reconnaissance patrol. A victory for me then, but a hollow one and morally redundant to boot. As the days have passed I have started to miss my little ant friends (I realise that they probably don’t think of me as a friend, but they should have thought about that before they chose where to pitch their tent). Fortunately I now feel slightly less melancholy about their departure because yesterday evening in the balmy heat of a late July dusk we were invaded in a reprisal by a vindictive squadron from the Luftwaffe of the ant world.
If regular ants are mildly admirable for their co-operation and tenacity then flying ants are much easier to despise because they’re flappy little fuckers and they serve next to no purpose whatsoever, unless you count dying in your freshly poured glass of wine a purpose (I suppose they would class themselves as Kamikaze). If ever you think that it’s nice to be at one with nature in these circumstances then think again. Even Dr Dolittle wouldn’t bother to talk to flying ants. The God of ants (not to be confused with Gant, the American Swedish clothes company) probably created flying ants the moment the first kettle was emptied on an ants nest. Famously, Richard Wagner wrote ‘The Ride Of The Valkyries’ shortly after his first wife was molested by a group of dive bombing ants as she tackled a particularly large slice of Black Forest Gateau in their orchard. Flying ants are important however, because they bring a message – don’t mess with us because your chances of winning in the long run are, literally, a million (give or take) to one. Like the Red Army in 1943 the ants will just keep on coming, no matter what you throw at them. Note: I appreciate that the Red Army and the Luftwaffe would never have forged such a close alliance but you have to appreciate that I’m making this shit up as I go along.
The ants may have guffawed at us with our fast spreading virus, thick leadership and stupid masks but the irony (is it irony?) of the Covid19 lockdown is that if anything it has forced us to spend more time closer to ants, and that isn’t something that anyone took into account way back in March. Sometimes I regret the litres of scorching water I threw at those massed ranks of ants but they should take some compensation from knowing that their kind have been around for a very, very long time and they’ll still be around long after we’ve gone. I conclude by suggesting that we can only hope that these clever little bastards now don’t decide to free up time usually spent walking along a piece of string carrying bits of leaves or overpowering scorpions by sheer weight of number to concentrate on developing a long range nuclear weapons programme, because then we’re really in trouble. And I bet you hadn’t thought of that.
G B Hewitt. 31.07.2020
Did you know that queen ants can live as long as 30 years? You do now.