AMATEUR NATURALIST

Myrmidons in Troy

Black field ants busy at a doorway to their underground city in Troy.
Black field ants busy at a doorway to their underground city in Troy.
Posted July 03, 2011, at 7:27 p.m.
Last modified July 05, 2011, at 7:33 p.m.

Under two sumac trees near our house in Troy, a metropolis has been under construction since spring. It’s gotten bigger and bigger, one doorway after another appearing out of the dirt, and it now spans more than a yard from city limit to city limit.

The residents bustle around hauling loads of dirt and exploring every inch of land to find out what use can be made of it. There’s no technology. West across the lawn are other metropolises, somewhat smaller. They’re as busy and strange as any ancient Greek cities must have been.

Myriads of black field ants live in them. Between blades of grass and under strawberry leaves, in patches of gravel and up the trunks of ash trees, ants are everywhere, working.

The main city under the sumacs has roughly the same ground plan as ant nests everywhere. Nicely shaped conical entrances of sand frame doorways, from which tunnels descend a foot or more underground. Horizontal chambers house offspring and store food, tended by specialized workers who all know their duties.

These black field ants are foragers, raiding out to the edge of the known world and into civilized places like the house, where fighting them off is more or less a losing battle (especially this year, for some reason). They sneak in unseen, despoil the countertops of cake crumbs and the floor by the cats’ dish of meat bits, then zigzag home. How many get lost on the return, I don’t know.

In warmer parts of the Western Hemisphere there are ants that are farmers rather than raiders. Leafcutting ants strip leaves from plants, chop them up and haul the cuttings into special underground chambers to mulch fields where they grow fungi. They eat the juicy fungi tips.

Some ants, like the red fire ants that have colonized Mount Desert Island and points northeast in recent years, keep aphids the way people keep cows. They shepherd and protect the aphids, and milk them for food.

Ants, like humans, are called by myrmecologists “social animals” because they live together cooperatively. How they do this, having such tiny nerve centers for brains and (as far as anyone knows) no language, is one of nature’s astonishing phenomena. The eminent entomologist E.O. Wilson once said that ants “are among the pinnacles of social evolution on this Earth.” Their level of cooperation is so highly refined it’s called “eusocial.”

All these words mean, really, is that ants work together, like humans do. (And like humans they work together to fight ferocious battles, too, though I’ve never seen one, only scuffles when one ant tries to steal a morsel out of another’s jaws.)

Without language per se, ants may communicate with chemical signals called pheromones which mark food trails or alarms. No one has yet found an ant library containing the blueprint for a nest, but somehow they share knowledge of how to build, forage and farm. What they say to each other and how they say it is further beyond our reach even than the daily life of ancient Knossos.

And yet Knossos, like the ant cities, had no electricity, no calculators, no engines, but talked about how to build walls and systems of agriculture and food processing. It was a cooperative project – computers, condominiums and ant colonies result from many minds and hands working like one.

One day about 3,500 years ago a huge volcanic explosion on the Aegean island of Thera (called Santorini when I stood on its precipices nearly 30 years ago — and called who knows what about 300 years after the blast when the Argives and Myrmidons set out on a pretext to raid Asia Minor) destroyed Knossos, just to its south. What the residents said as the ash and smoke rained down is now out of hearing.

I wonder what the ants think when periodically during the summer a tremendous roaring and the odor of oil approach the city, and then wind and a massive spinning thing shear off the conical entrances, the vegetation all around is slashed, and the top layers of the city are destroyed.

It doesn’t matter. They all set to work immediately, carrying out boulders of sand and piling them neatly on the surface, recarving caved-in chambers, scooping up eggs to save the babies. They all know what to do, and do it together. And their siege on our house in Troy continues undeterred.

Dana Wilde can be contacted at naturalist@dwildepress.net. His collection of Amateur Naturalist writings, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available from www.booklocker.com and from online and local book sellers.

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