Springtime Offensive

Ants report for duty and mount their annual assault on domestic battlefields.

DANIEL CHANG

Since rousing from their winter torpor in the crawlspace under my house, colonies of little black ants have been working around the clock to set up their seasonal field headquarters. They will invade my stores, my living quarters, as well as choice areas of my quarter-acre plot. Waiting in the backyard for the repairman to fix my sump pump, I can imagine the activity beneath my house as the soldier ants are called up for service. There are bugle calls, the staccato barking of orders and sounds of a Marine Corps band playing Schubert’s “Marche Militaire” as the ant sergeants drill new recruits, striving to instill uniform order and cadence.

Some of the worker ants are learning reconnaissance skills or attending classes on blueprint reading. Some are studying the floor plan of my house, a mid-century rambler with many historic insect trails and undiscovered wall voids. Meanwhile, other worker ants are learning predatory techniques, exit strategies, Meals Ready to Eat preparation, nursery management and even the sad business of being an undertaker.

I have determined, through limited observation and the most basic research, that all ants but the queen make their own cots, report for KP duty and take out the trash. Daily, they practice wall scaling and crawling on their thoraxes under fire. Known to scientists as well as exterminators as the little black ants, these insects are about 1/16th of an inch at maturity and are capable of lifting 50 times their body weight; a good thing if they’re ever called on to carry the queen, who’s a bruiser. She, herself, is waited on hand and foot. Her offspring are nurtured and cosseted by colony workers who may shift the brood from place to place as moisture and temperature fluctuate. Ant daycare.

When they’re not eating MREs or sucking on greasy substances, the ants favor a sweet, sticky dropping from the aphids abiding under the leaves of my six-foot ficus tree. The clever black ants herd the aphids to their nests like cows and milk them for their honeydew. In return, the aphids, and their eggs, have access to protection services and other benefits within the ant colony.

In addition to crawl spaces, as the pest control commercials will tell you, the little black ants nest around building foundations, in structural wood, masonry cracks, abandoned termite mines as well as stored boxes of left-over ceramic tile, the entrances marked with craters of fine soil. In the garden, they may locate under the concrete base of a birdbath or an ornamental mirrored ball, even under a statue of Saint Francis, which is a good place to leave a saucer of sugar water, both as an oblation and to draw the ants away from the premises.

Encouraged, perhaps, by the verdant spirit and energy of the goddess Demeter, my crawl space ants emerged from their winter haven and paraded around the rim of my ball-and-claw bathtub. It was a triumphant, if modest, procession to the music of Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests,” if I heard correctly. In my mind’s eye, the new recruits appeared a bit ragged and veered out of line occasionally, following a newly laid but erratic chemical trail. But they seemed motivated, persevering around the bathtub’s perimeter before disbanding to take up their various duties. Several worker ants took in water from the washbasin, while others stood watch from the crest of a tall chrome container of toilet paper rolls. On my bedside table that evening, I noticed a coterie of ants checking out a foot-high stack of old copies of The New Yorker, prying between the pages in an effort to salvage bits of aged almond macaroon or desiccated butter creams. Maybe they just wanted to catch up on the cartoons after being holed up all winter. By morning, five or six worker ants, having memorized my kitchen layout, discovered drippings from a Crescent City gumbo on the stovetop and sucked away, ecstatic, I imagine, over bits of Andouille sausage. I have to assume that this isn’t gluttony; that the ants process juices from their food finds, store them and then share with the colony.

The bathroom ants moved on, having lost countless numbers of workers who, falling into the empty tub and unable to ascend its slippery slope, disappeared down the drain hole. The kitchen ants, perhaps discouraged by the discovery of a South Beach diet book on the counter and anticipating the deprivation of fats and carbs, have probably gone next door to check out the professional-style gas grill newly installed in my neighbor’s yard. Other ants have been encouraged to move on by a gentle spray of vinegar and a little cinnamon sprinkled on their backsides.

Sometime in late summer the ants will be back, mounting the seven-foot pole supporting the hummingbird feeder, traffic backed up for yards. A few might pick fights and die of injuries; some will get drunk and wander off to find an empty cot under a slab of slate; others will plunge through the feeder’s ant guard and drown in the nectar. Standing by solemnly with his notebook and No. 2 pencil, the undertaker ant will take down the names.

In late fall, I imagine a few old retired field marshal ants, sporting faded campaign ribbons with battle stars, will assemble in the makeshift Bachelor Officer Quarters. They will regale each other into the night with truths and lies about their combat adventures while drinking the last of the fermented honeydew wine. 

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