Keeping an eye on the ant people

Scientists from the Smithsonian are keeping pretty busy these days, ant-watching on the 2,600 acres of the Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies. Of course the researchers who are staring at tiny holes in the forest floor, waiting for the little creatures to come out and sniff the tuna bait, quite put it that way. They explain that they're studying "General behavioral strategy patterns" (hmm) as related to "altruism" and "aggression."

Ah, anthropomorphims! The first three letters spell ant. Few people stare at ants very long without thinking of them as people, beginning with King Solomon. Rating ants as "a people not strong" but "exceeding wise," Solomon advised: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest." (Proverbs 6: 6-8)

Aesop further endoresed the ant -- as opposed to the grasshopper -- as the employee every employer was searching for.

The workaholic Bismarck paid the ant what he took to be the ultimate man-made compliment. "If I had to choose the form in which I would rather live again, I think it would be as an ant," wrote the over-achieving first chancellor of Germany. "All ants are obliged to labor, to lead a useful life; all are industrious, and perfect subordination prevails, with discipline and order."

What is there about all this heavy-breathing approval that makes us like the ant just a little less? The something about Robert Frost that didn't like a wall also didn't like an ant. Ants, Frost said, were a little "departmental" for his taste, and post-Bismarck (not to mention, post-Kafka) moderns tend to share Frost's feeling.

Nobody with an ounce of Horatio Alger to him can help admiring the harvester ant, pushing leaves down the tunnel with its nose (or whatever) to start a sort of fungus farm, or herding aphids into corrals to "milk" the insects for their sweet liquids. And who can fail to be in awe of the janitor ant, guarding the entrance by filling the space with its head, opening only to an accredited, leaf-carrying member of the community?

Still, there are 6,000 varieties of ants on earth, and they have been here for 50 million years, and maybe it is time to appreciate the ant as a little more than the world's most dedicated hustler.

They tiny busybodies qualify, for instance, as conservationists, aerating 600 pounds of soil per acre annually.

But above all, we're counting on the Smithsonian ant-watchers to tell us improving stories about the ant as peacemaker. The population of a colony can run into the millions, but there seems to be no rioting in the tunnels and very few wars above ground.

On second thought, maybe the ants should turn down the rather bellicose Bismarck's application.

Here's fable for a latter-day Aesop: The fiercest warriors among the ants are blind. On the other hand, the most intelligent species, genus Formicinae,m has lost its power to sting. Its only deterrent weapon is a squirt of formic acid -- the mace of the insect world.

If we're going to confuse ants with people, this may be the place to do it. More power to the Smithsonian's watchers if they can bring on the post-industrial, SALT-treaty ant -- more worried about coexistence than antheap Gross National Product.

Meanwhile, we're continuing to study the ant as comedian. The ant, we maintain, has always been one of nature's great put-on artists. The harvester ant isn't really trying to carry leaves -- it's trying to walk like Charlie Chaplin. The janitor ant isn't really guarding the hole -- it's framing its best deadpan look for a Buster Keaton closeup.

Our scholarly definition of the ant is Harold Lloyd with feelers -- a regular silent film festival.

If the Smithsonian people want to fund our study, we'll bring the popcorn if they'll bring the ants.

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