Saturday, January 07, 2006

A bit more local natural history

When I rose before dawn this morning to make my coffee the ants were back in force, a long streaming army of them schlepping crumbs up along the window screen to the place where they foolishly think they can take the crumbs outside. A crack big enough to admit an ant is not necessarily big enough to allow reverse passage for a bread crumb.

Ants go with the territory here in the tropics. I always find myself lingering between the murderous swipe of the sponge and leaving them be. I made the mistake once of reading Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson monumental study, The Ants -- everything you want to know, and more, about these creatures. Ever since, I've been more inclined to reach for my magnifier rather than the Raid.

So here I am, watching ants schlepping crumbs, and trying to discern what goes on in their tiny formicarian minds. What is manifestly clear is that they have a hard time focusing. They come and go on their project, taking up their places at a crumb's perimeter for a few seconds, then scurrying off to somewhere else. Still, the crumb ascends. It's a sort of collective intelligence I'm watching. I wonder if the 100 billion neurons in the human brain work the same way.

Ogden Nash thought he understood the ant's unfocused busyness: "Would you be calm and placid," he asks, "if you were full of formic acid?"

Formic acid occurs naturally in the bodies of ants and takes its name from the Latin for "ant" (formica). From the Latin root we also have the scientific name of the ant family, Formicidae, and a bunch of other ant words, such as formicary (a nest of ants), formicate (to swarm with ants), and formication (an abnormal sensation of ants crawling over the skin). The very thought of finding oneself on a formicating formicary is enough to make the skin crawl.

Holldobler and Wilson tell us that ants can specialize when the need arises, but I don't see that among the frenzied throng along our window screen. What I see is an uncalm, unplacid, six-steps-forward-five-steps-backward kind of life. It's a helluva way to make a living. Which probably explains why those of us with less formic acid and bigger brains prefer to be out fiddling with the grasshopper.