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Lessons From Ants

June 22, 2014

Two of our grandchildren were with us last week. One sunny afternoon we were outside when out three-year-old granddaughter discovered a small cone-shaped ant hill. She was fascinated until a single ant crawled across her sandal. I assured her that the tiny creature would not hurt her. Then her five-year-old brother chimed in, “But some ants do hurt. They hurt a lot.”

It was an important lesson to learn about ants. They are not all the same.

According to Clemson University, 144 species of ants are known to live in South Carolina. Nineteen of those are alien species. These have their origins in a variety of regions, including Central and South America, Mexico, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia.

Of all ants, the fire ant is the most serious pest and has been reported in every county in South Carolina. The Asian needle ant has also become a nuance in recent years.

Last week while planting a few flowers in my garden, I picked up an overturned pot and immediately saw fire ants swarming on the ground. Fortunately, I was wearing my garden gloves. I received only a few stings from the little black insects. I keep a bottle of bleach in my barn for just such an event. A quick wash of Clorox, followed by a rinse of cold water, brought soothing relief.

In 1918, fire ants entered this country as illegal aliens through the port of Mobile, Alabama.  These immigrants, stowaways on a ship arriving from South America, soon became migrants, spreading throughout the South.  They are a prolific lot, producing many offspring.  Moving north, east, and west, they eventually reached South Carolina.

I have suffered many unpleasant close encounters of the third kind with these unwelcome invaders. Last fall, as I was planting daylilies that I had divided, I disturbed a colony of these pesky intruders. Immediately, black fire ants, boiled up out of the ground, covering my left arm.

Fire ants are nasty little critters. They lock their jaws into your flesh, simultaneously biting and injecting, from the other end, their stinging venom.

Recently, I learned that pyramid ants and fire ants are natural enemies. In fact, a favorite food of the pyramid variety is fire ants. Pyramid ants thrive in sunny, open spaces, usually near the nests of other kinds of ants. Their nests – small craters that resemble tiny volcanoes – are easily recognized. Pyramid ants are found throughout the United States but are more common in the Southern states.

These ants are sometimes called yard ants because they rarely enter or become pests in buildings. Infestations in buildings are usually the result of foraging workers searching for food.   Indoors, they will feed on a variety of foods but are particularly attracted to sweets.  The workers move quickly and forage in strong, easily detected trails.

Pyramid ants are rarely found foraging inside structures but may be common on porches, patios, and decks.  Nests have not been reported indoors.  Pyramid ant colonies are usually small, containing only a few thousand individuals and a single queen.

I have decided to be more selective in using ant killers, eliminating only the stinging fire ants. Pyramid ants have an open invitation to our yard.

When Miz Lib, my mother-in-law, died, we had the overwhelming task of cleaning out her house.  Miz Lib had not thrown away anything.  She saved cardboard tubes out of rolls of paper towels and toilet paper. She washed and kept egg cartons, justifying her hoarding with, “You just never know when somebody will need these items for a Bible School project.”

While looking under the kitchen sink, I found at least a dozen empty Duke’s mayonnaise jars with lids.

I asked, “What in the world did Miz Lib think we would ever do with all these glass jars?”

One of our children explained, “Dad, she always had a mayonnaise jar for us if we wanted to catch lightning bugs.”

Milton Lavine was like a lot of other kids.  He enjoyed catching bugs of all kinds but especially took pleasure in finding ants and putting them in a glass jar with sand.  He called it his antarium.

After he became an adult, Milton and his brother-in-law were enjoying a Fourth of July family picnic when he noticed numerous ants in the area. Milton suggested, “We ought to make an antarium and see if there would be a market for it.”

Milton and his brother-in-law, E.J. Cossman, invented the ant farm.  Perhaps you remember their design, clear plastic panels on a green frame shaped like a farm scene. Sand was provided with the farm, but ants – red harvester ants – had to be ordered. Lavine and Cossman paid a penny a piece for the insects, which came from the Mohave Desert.  Those ants were mailed in a glass tube to be added to the farm.

The educational toy was an instant hit. The product has remained essentially the same over the decades. Uncle Milton Industries sold more than 20,000,000 ant farms, giving children a sneak peek into the underground life of the tiny insects. The Toy Industry Association has recognized his invention as one of the Top 100 Toys of the Century.

I had one of those farms on three different occasions, but my ants kept dying. It was only recently that I found out why the ants had such a high death rate.  When the farms were first produced, the glue used to hold the containers together was toxic to the ants.  The entire colony died if worker ants ate morsels of glue.  That happened to my ants at least twice.

The last time I owned a farm; I looked at it one day and saw that one of the plastic panels was cracked.  I am not exactly sure how that happened, but the ants were crawling all over the top of and inside of the drawers of my dresser.  I found ants all over the bedroom that my brother Bob and I shared.  We tried to suck up the prodigal ants with a vacuum cleaner, but it was several weeks before we got all of them.

Even with the mishaps, the ants were fascinating to watch as the colony built tunnels and created pathways all through the sand. In a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Lavine said, “Humanity can learn a lot from the ant.”

He mentioned three lessons in particular:

  1. Ants are diligent workers day and night.
  2. Ants never procrastinate.
  3. Ants work together for the common good.

The Bible encourages us to pay attention to these small creatures. Proverb 6:6-8 advises, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!” The proverb goes on to name two additional lessons we can learn from the ant:

It has no commander, overseer, or ruler.

It stores provisions in summer and gathers food at harvest.

When asked in the 2002 interview what he considered the most amazing fact about ants, Uncle Milton responded with a grin, “They put my three children through college.”



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