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In Praise of the Carpenter Ant

It is good to praise something you hate.

Lately, my friend’s kitchen has been invaded by carpenter ants, and they make me shudder. It’s visceral. I’m making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a plate and they come scuttling from God knows where, waving their little “elbowed” antennae in celebration, and I just quiver all over with revulsion.

“Ants,” I yell, snatching my plate off the table before they can attack. “Oh yeah,” says my friend, nonchalant. “It’s spring.”

Carpenter ants [Camponotus novaeboracensis: the New York carpenter ant], which evolved about 100 million years ago, are just about the biggest ant in the USA, 1/4 to 1/2 an inch long. The winged queen can be as big as an inch. The short-lived males, also winged for the nuptials, are a little smaller. The sterile female workers are usually black, sometimes red and black, and are different sizes depending on their jobs.

You can distinguish carpenter ants from termites because carpenter ants have that tiny waist with one bump (a node, or “petiole”) and a smooth thorax (the upper segment), whereas a termite is brown, has straighter antennae, and doesn’t have a segmented waist.

Their big, creepy, chitinous bodies and scuttling ways make carpenter ants easy to hate. I remember one of my favorite authors when I was a teen, A.E. van Vogt, wrote a story in which the lead character explains that the ubiquitous, human, visceral shudder we experience in close confrontation with spiders and ants is the result of instinctive “knowing” they are simply alien … from another planet. Yes, I’ve always felt since reading that, they are alien! van Vogt isn’t the only one to say it … the great classic, Ender’s Game, modeled the invading aliens (which almost decimate humanity) after ants.

But now I look for a deeper bond with that which is not exactly human.

The little creatures, as evinced by their uncannily rapid advance upon my jelly jar, adore sugar. In this, they are just like me! Jelly, syrup, cakes, ice cream, cookies … we have this in common. Also they like to eat tuna canned in water – not oil. Just like me. Who knew?

Carpenter ants are clever and peripatetic. Since moisture is their element, they usually create huge primary nests outdoors in rotten wood and satellite nests in damp spots in homes. They don’t actually eat wood, or attack sound wood like termites do. They tunnel into already damp, soft wood. Outdoors, they help with the decomposition of forest detritus into rich soil. Indoors, they’re kind of like little alarm bells. If you see carpenter ants scuttling across your countertops or up the bathroom walls, ding, ding … you can know for sure there’s some wet, rotting wood in your house that needs replacing, and maybe a leak or two that needs fixing.

Everything about ants promotes sharing and communal life. Do they not exhibit the quintessential freedom from ego? I’m always striving to be free of self-centeredness. Maybe ants should be our spirit-guides.

I particularly like one story that informs us some ants take the heads of other insects back to the nest so everybody can share sucking out the contents. And then, there’s the regurgitation to feed others in the nest. How selfless. Best of all, everybody has a place and a job. They all function as part of the whole. Don’t we, also, strive to find one-ness?

Sister workers of different sizes feed the babies, guard the nest, burrow, forage and throw up. Winged males live briefly to mate and die. Queens exist to lay eggs. What could be simpler? They never fight because nobody’s out for power. Only queens try to kill each other. We should take a lesson. Wouldn’t it be great if only presidents and dictators killed each other, instead of making everybody else go to war?

Learning more about carpenter ants really has made me less squeamish. I look upon their courageous excursions in unfamiliar daylight with greater interest. Do I now hesitate to squish the little bastards? No I do not. But while examining these five tentacles I call fingers, my own soft and aging coverlet of flesh, with the blue veins that surface a little more each year, I do marvel that whatever created the ant created me.


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