Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ant misbehavin'

Last weekend, I spent a couple of gleeful hours pulling weeds and dying plants out of our front yard to make way for a few new future dead things. In the process I came across a few spiders, some nasty earwigs, and a whole lotta ants.

I respect insects, really I do. I love them so much I let them thrive in the damp plant debris of my overrun yard for months at a time. But I could swear the earwigs I unearthed were stalking me. Two of them came out of the ground and headed toward my feet while I was standing on the sidewalk. And each time I moved, they changed direction to follow me. I'm not kidding. So I squashed them with my spade.

Then, less than thirty minutes later, I found piles of ants busy pulling apart and carrying away the sticky goodness of earwig carcass. Mmmmm...earwig carcass.

At least the earwigs were crushed first. Shortly after we moved into this place, I was walking down our front steps to head to the grocery store when I saw a thrashing, oozing caterpillar being attacked by hundreds of merciless ants. When I returned a few minutes later, the caterpillar was mostly gone and decidedly dead.

I figured at that point that my battle with the ants already inside our home was doomed. Turns out, though, that the hundreds of tiny spiders that stand guard near every crack or hole in our creaky home mostly keep them in check, leaving behind piles of ant carcasses stacked neatly in the corners of our windowsills. As long as I avoid spraying ant and spider killer, and clean mostly with castille soap and vinegar, they keep up their important work. In fact, I've found that not cleaning the nooks and crannies at all works equally well.

I would prefer not to come into contact with ants. It makes me grumpy when ants invade my compost bin, or carry aphids onto my burgeoning herb garden, or herd up my son's leg when he steps onto the grass. And it makes me especially grumpy when I see or read more about just how incredible they are. For intance, a recent study reports that one ant species will throw itself into holes and dips in an ant trail to make the road smooth for the rest. My favorite quote: "Broadly, our research demonstrates that a simple but highly specialized behavior performed by a minority of ant workers can improve the performance of the majority, resulting in a clear benefit for the society as a whole." Darn it, I just can't stay mad an insect that will clean dead earwig meat off my sidewalk, or let 200,000 of its peers literally walk all over it for the good of the colony.

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