Ants

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Working at the Student Garden at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of ants. These ferocious red pests could build huge colonies where you least expected it and all too frequently I would unknowingly step on a mound. In a matter of seconds I would be jumping around, smacking off ants, and cursing their tiny bites. If I was feeling particularly retaliatory I would grab the water hose and wreck havoc through the many layers of their elaborate home as they desperately sought safety for their precious larvae trapped in the flooded wreckage. Even better was the lawnmower method whereby ants, sand, larvae and grass are sprayed in all directions leaving behind a bomb-like demolition zone.

Since moving to the Philippines, ants have become an entirely different beast. The tiny brown ones smaller than a grain of rice are capable of creating monumental trails running along doorframes and down the sides of chairs or tables with the congestion of Manila rush hour traffic, yet the fluidity of water to find the one piece of cracker that has fallen from your plate. These minuscule monsters can invade sealed containers or magically appear crawling along your arm with no explanation as to their means of arrival. After living here for a year the sight of fifty ants crawling along the pan-de-sal (bread roll) is no longer a cause for alarm, just calmly brush them off and consume as usual. For lunch today I salvaged delicious mangos from the ants that appeared on the plate shortly after it was sliced.

Red ants can also be found here in the Philippines. They crawled along mangrove roots while we completed our assessments and walked across the tree trunks I grabbed while climbing up Mt. Guiting Guiting. When it rains, they appear in abundance and when they bite you must pull them off. In parts of Ecuador, large biting ants about an inch in length are used as stitches for wounds. Locals would position each ant to bite the breast of the cut and then squeeze off the body leaving a row of ant heads clamping their skin together.

Ants may be more intelligent than we give them credit for. TED Talk, “The emergent genius of ant colonies” by Deborah Gordon discusses ability of ant colonies to react as a unit to respond to threats such as a stick placed at the site of the anthill, whereby individual ants leave their assigned tasks to solve the more immediate problem. http://www.ted.com/talks/deborah_gordon_digs_ants?language=en#

Ants, a nuisance but a need, a terrestrial detritivore. Maybe peanut butter jars in the Philippines should come with a label: contains ant-enriched protein.

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