In this challenging human moment, the common ant offers a reminder that we creatures of Earth aren’t all that different, after all. We are complex, caring, and more powerful together.
What we generally call “black ants” or “red ants” are not single species but rather catch-all nicknames encompassing many different species. Though all ants belong to a single family (formicidae), there are more than 12,000 known ant species around the world, 42 of which exist in Maine. The variety is astonishing. One example: one might say “red ant” and mean “fire ant,” or even more specifically “red imported fire ant” (native to South America and now in parts of the U.S., though not Maine). In Maine, we might be referring to the European fire ant (which stings), or any of a dozen other red-colored ants found here that do not. Indeed, not all fire ants are even red: some are black. Categorizing ants as merely “red” or “black” is such an extreme over-simplification that doing so serves no use in trying to understand ant-nature in all its varied complexity.
As useless as categorizing humans based on the color of their skin.
Worker ants serve two different purposes in a colony: nurses remain inside the nest attending to the young, and foragers collect food outside the nest. As a result, foragers are far more likely to be infected by pathogens than nurses. In some ant species, the response to such infection is quarantine: forager ants exposed to pathogens will avoid the nest, while nurses move the brood to safety deeper inside the nest. Other ant species seek a kind of “herd immunity,” with ants intentionally exposing themselves to a pathogen by licking fungal spores off other ants: though a percentage of the colony may die, the overall colony acquires immunity.
We humans aren’t the only species with different instincts on how best to handle the threat of disease.
Ant colonies range in population from hundreds to tens of thousands. While a single ant attacking a larger animal is typically harmless, multiply that a hundred- or ten-thousand-fold and the outcome is different. Ant species range in aggressiveness, even in Maine: disturb a European fire ant colony and you’ll feel the sting, but carpenter ants generally don’t bite at all. Most ant species will not attack unless threatened, but once threatened, certain species become especially activated: through biting with or without venom (depending on the species; there are no venomous ants in Maine), the key to ant defense is numbers. One ant makes little impact; thousands do.
Just like the power of people and protest.
Racism. Disease. Protest.
As we grapple with a host of societal ills, perhaps recognizing we are not so different from the common ant will offer a helpful perspective (and a useful dose of humility).