Ants Like Us
Like an ant quivering on the edge of a table before scurrying away, I stand, relying on two crampon points and the tip of my ice axe to anchor me to the icy slope. Inches from my right boot, a threatening crevasse snakes down the glacier, revealing cavernous blue depths. Beside me, the gap is not more than twenty-four inches, but the entire glacier is a forbidding patchwork of fractures. I stare at thousands of tons of dynamic ice, unable to muster the nerve to navigate the uncomfortably broad step over the abyss. I am strongly inclined to turn around and scamper away, but I’m effectively attached to the glacier, the last teammate of five spread along the length of a rope, waiting unsteadily while our leader buries an anchor into the ice in case anyone is to slip.
Frozen by my fear of falling and failing, I am reduced to a small, terribly unworthy opponent of the glacier. The ice creaks and shifts, producing an ominous growl. My calm is as precarious as my position, and I start crying, terrified, trapped in a personal hell on the cold, hard glacier. I stay there for a moment that stretches longer than my early morning shadow before I step, convinced I’m about to find myself an unwilling participant in a crevasse rescue lesson, dangling far below the daylight in the narrow, unnervingly blue slot and crying until (and likely after) rescue. Over the course of the climb, I’ve shrunk from a slightly below average sized human to an infinitesimally small, exceedingly insignificant ant now trembling on the frictionless surface of a disquieting landscape.
Perched on a couch back at home, I feel something crawling on me. I catalog speedy little legs and unknown size and purpose. Alarmed, I aggressively swat for the threat, imagining a spider, tick, centipede, tarantula. Predictably, it’s just an ant, one of ten quadrillion members of the ant race alive on Earth at any given moment.
“It’s just an ant,” says everyone, everywhere. Ants are biters, stingers, predators, destroyers of crops, and eaters of houses. Industriousness and the ability to carry over fifty times their bodyweight constitute a dangerously insufficient evaluation of these underestimated creatures. Ants developed systematic agriculture millions of years before humans, cultivating crops, managing herds of aphids, and fiercely defending farms against pests and molds. Possessing outrageously keen senses of smell, ants are able to detect minute particles from several meters away and identify minor chemical changes in other creatures. Driver ants swarm animals one thousand times their size, bullet ants render their human victims to a reported state of wanting to lay down and die with the most powerful sting of any insects, and leafcutter ants tear up living vegetation and effectively compost the leaves to raise fungus.
Over 12,000 species of resilient super-sniffers inhabit this Earth, organized into complex social colonies characterized by advanced communication and systematized lifestyle. Like ants, people aggressively protect, expand, and obliterate, relying on physical faculties and self-established superiority to perpetuate the notion that humanity is permanently and exponentially bigger than any other species. As the total biomass of ants is greater than that of humans, perhaps we should be less dismissive of these fellow animals.
E.O. Wilson, biologist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and renowned expert on anything ant, uses ants to study the evolution of social behavior. His repeated thesis: humans are like ants.
Ants are an exceptionally eusocial species, defined by their highly organized society founded upon individual sacrifice for the greater wellbeing of the group. Wilson considers the forces of social evolution revealed by ant colonies highly applicable to humans and argues that eusociality is what enabled humans to prevail as the dominating species of the world. Just as humans are supported by the collective nature of civilization, individual ants survive because of the social structure of their incredibly refined colonies, characterized by communication, organization, smell, farming, maintenance, social roles, and practically civilized lifestyles. Although ants are by no means miniature humans and the eusociality of humans was developed differently, intertwined with other aspects of humanity such as higher intellect, complex emotions, sense of free will, and advantageous anatomy, ants and humans both alter their environments like no other living species. Humans can do many things that ants cannot, on a literal level, but both rule their respective worlds.
The comparison of myself to an ant is a subject of ongoing consideration.
Ant identity is suggested soon after when articulating the trauma of crawling across glaciers to my best friend, she compares me to an ant. “Ants are strong little things,” she tells me, “And always running.” I protest the comparison, profiling my character with even less mercy than the adversary glacier: weak, unskilled, helpless, frantic, tearful, fearful. I survived the ambitious step across the crevasse by way of miracle; I accomplished the rest of the climb only because every other glacier was comfortably snow covered which ensured that I never again saw a crevasse glowering at me before it swallowed.
“Do you display agricultural tendencies?” my friend asks helpfully.
“Well, some ants do, so I thought I’d check.”
Although any comparison between humans and ants must allow for variation within either species, if I’m brave enough to possess the inclination to be challenged, it manifests in painful, ambitious projects involving dry glaciers and consequent suffering.
“I’m NOT an ant,” I protest for the second or fifth time.
“But you are pretty short.”
Although small and (usually) easily squished, ants are characterized by their resilience and ability to survive extreme adversity.
In this regard, I feel significantly less than worthy of ant status. A charging dog, a slip into glacial innards, a centipede, a risk, a failure leave me paralyzed or fleeing. Fear aggressively invades my mind, seizing my thoughts in a grip of iron, smashing, melting, and warping logic into a new shape. I point out the glacier as the site of my greatest chicken impersonation, citing my display of hysterics and denial of rational survival skills as clear evidence that I should assume a mascot clearly more resembling of my character. Biologically, some degree of fear is critical for survival as a vital response to danger, so chickens demonstrate not only fright but also admirable survival instinct as they run directly into hazards in their frantic attempts to seek safety. My best friend protests with simple but faulty rationale: “No, you can’t be a chicken, because you’re an ant.” At this stage in the ant discussion, ant has become my nickname, and hers as well, and we strive for an advanced strength of will associated with ants. Yet any level of ant-ness I maintain, fear is my frequent companion and I naturally flutter away from hypothetical threats.
Chickens are renowned eaters of ants, but many red ants, particularly fiery in taste and in nature, will win. If ants froze and stared at every threat like I do on unstable ice, they’d die so much faster.
Carpenter ants scurry in a continuous line on the precariously thin edge of the sink, carrying small particles of food and house in an efficient line of production. The ants are not only cleaning the kitchen counters but also slowly nibbling away at the structure of my grandfather’s house. When I was little, present adults would advise that we execute the ants upon sighting. Now, an established vegetarian and general ant sympathizer, I only remove the ants like unpalatable raisins dotting my toast or cereal and pretend not to notice the larger insects parading past me, flaunting chunks of the walls.
The ants thrive while the house deteriorates into a marginally smaller, messier, emptier construction representative of cumulative neglect. Neither humans nor ants are infinite in quantity nor lifespan, but both populations reach towards the same sense of perpetuity, creating and destroying complicated structures and systems infinitely larger than themselves and altering the natural environment on different but nevertheless impressively exhausting levels. Numerous and busy, the determined little creatures impact their environments and regularly survive.
Most of us live like worker ants, conducting short lives, ranging, for the most part, only short distances from our homes but impacting much larger areas. We’re small and busy, afraid and brave, tiny and consequential against the immense geography that is the world.
My list of fears is finite, but not permanent.
When Ant and I were smaller, we imitated the courageous journeys of ants by flouncing back and forth for hours on a seven-foot tall fence swinging brooms like batons singing fourteen versions of “The ants are marching one by one, hoorah, hoorah…” We astonished passersby and entertained ourselves, not remotely afraid of our reputation or the potential drop. Eight years later, on the steep shore of a lake buried in the wilderness, I’m boldly navigating through boulders and ice when I tumble down a steep snowfield nearly into the water. I drag myself to a halt, fingers dug into the icy slope; I lie on the snow under the rapidly liquefying sky, a foolish, brave, tiny speck of an ant.
Although we’re no longer brandishing cleaning instruments, we’re still emulating ants, now elevated by our pursuit of ant qualities, growing ant-aided confidence, and dare I say it, occasional ant-boosted success. We’re mildly crippled ants, ever stumbling, but intent on pursuing our ant dreams.
Ant and I discuss the merits of working toward more definite (braver) ant status.
There is a proverb: If you do not smash an ant, it is impossible for you to find its guts. Every day, ants are stomped and spared without thought. The question is not if smashing will occur but how much damage will ensue. Ant imitation is an effort to crush insecurity, functioning as a lens through which to be forcefully pressured but not fatally squished, fiery but functional, uneaten and still flying.
Ant and I remind ourselves of our ant strength daily and arrogantly define our ant-ness as exclusive. “Infinite ant power,” Ant says, and I echo the refrain. We quantify our total friend counts, cruelly, in decimals, but assign each other infinity as a numerical value. It’s impossible, but we’re already impossibly ants.
There are no ants like us. Most are smaller.
Raina Sciocchetti is an aspiring writer from Northern California. She is an Environmental Writing and Media Studies Major at Unity College.