“Go to the Ant”
NO ONE expects you to be very happy if droves of ants show up for your picnic under the trees. They have a way of making pests of themselves. And these persistent little insects would be likely to get you and your party on the move rather quickly.
Yet, ants receive favorable mention in the oldest book on earth. “Go to the ant, you lazy one; see its ways and become wise,” says the Holy Bible. (Prov. 6:6) Evidently this means that the lazy person can learn something from the lowly ant. But what?
The Bible also indicates that ants are among creatures “instinctively wise.” (Prov. 30:24, 25) Does this mean that they think deeply, make intelligent plans and then carry them out?
Searching for answers to such questions will put us in unusual company. In fact, tracking ants, observing them and visiting their abodes can be quite an adventure.
Meet a “Superfamily”
Ants are insects of the “order” Hymenoptera, which also includes wasps and bees. But ants themselves form what is called the “superfamily” Formicoidea. All very scientific, isn’t it? Well, whatever you call them, there are some 15,000 species of ants on earth, and they live everywhere except in the polar regions.
One thing is sure: Ants are supernumerous. Why, in just one ten-acre (4-hectare) woodland plot investigated, there were an estimated eleven to thirteen million of only one species, to say nothing of all the other ants in that same area!
A Close-up View
While there are ants by the millions, suppose we take a closer look at them as individuals. Let’s start with color. Some ants are yellowish, but the majority are black, brown or red. “But I’ve also heard of white ants,” you may remark. “What about them?” Actually, “white ants” are not ants at all. They are termites and belong to another family of insects.
Now, for a word about ant anatomy. The body consists of three parts: (1) the head; (2) the thorax; and (3) the abdomen. Ants have several nerve centers, the largest being the brain, situated in the insect’s head. Most of these creatures have a compound eye on each side of the head. These eyes may consist of six to over a thousand lenses, each like a minute eye. Additionally, certain winged ants possess three simple eyes on the back of the head. Though ant vision is often very dim, and certain ants have no eyes, at least some ants can see rocks and other things and use these “landmarks” as a guide in their travels.
While looking at the ant’s head, notice the two antennae extending outward. Feeling, tasting and smelling all are associated with these “feelers.” And please do not overlook those jaws. They open and shut from side to side, not up and down.
The ant’s three pairs of legs are attached to the thorax. So are wings, if the insect happens to have any. Next comes the abdomen, containing the crop, in which food is stored and carried to others of the ant community. The ant’s stomach and intestines are situated behind the crop in its abdomen. One more thing: Some ants have a pain-producing sting. In fact, by stinging, fire ants have been known to kill young birds that have not yet left the nest.
A Place to Call “Home”
“Home” for the ants is just a small place to begin with, ‘a little nest to call their own.’ It may be a mere burrow in the ground or under some rocks. Certain ants form mounds or anthills, by piling earth and twigs around and over their nests. Inside there are corridors linking a number of chambers. Other ants dig perhaps some sixteen feet (five meters) into the earth, and their underground maze of rooms and passageways may become quite extensive. Why, some nests cover a whole acre (.4 hectare)!
Carpenter ants set up housekeeping in wood. While they do not consume the wood, they do chew out spaces in it. This is not so bad if their home happens to be an old log in the forest. But it is another matter, indeed, if “home” turns out to be the beams of your house. Why, buildings may collapse because carpenter ants establish living quarters in their timbers!
Some ants weave leaves together to make the outer walls of their homes. In doing this, they use the silky material given off by developing ants, or larvae. While some adult ants hold the leaves in place, others move the larva back and forth, sewing together the edges. Still other ants make “carton,” using wood particles, and possibly some sand, all cemented together with their saliva. But the insects called army ants are not housing engineers. They merely cluster around the mother ant and her young ones, perhaps hanging from a log with their legs hooked together to form a temporary shelter.
A Caste System All Their Own
Ants live cooperatively in well-organized groups or colonies, and the Bible appropriately calls these social insects “a people.” (Prov. 30:25) Among them there are three basic castes: (1) the “queen” or “queens”; (2) the males; and (3) the workers. The Bible says that the ant “has no commander, officer or ruler.” (Prov. 6:7) A person might think that the “queen” is the ruler in an ant community, but that is not so. Interestingly, it has been said: “Outstanding in any typical colony is the queen; she is not a ruler in any sense of the word, but is the mother, and frequently the founder, of the colony. She lays the eggs from which all the other ants develop.”—The Animal Kingdom.
Whereas the “queen” may live up to fifteen years, the males, which usually have wings, generally live just a few weeks. Their responsibility? To mate with the “queen.” For some reason unknown to man, ordinarily toward evening of a particular day all the ant colonies of a certain species within miles will drive out the winged males and females. The evicted ants then try out their wings in what is called the marriage flight. Usually while airborne, the males and females mate. At this time, and perhaps from more than one male, the female takes in sufficient sperm cells for a lifetime of prodigious egg-laying.
After the marriage flight, the ants drop to the ground and the males soon die or are eaten by various mammals or birds. The female chews or tears off her wings, crawls to a secure place under cover, lays some eggs and cares for them until workers develop. They then take over the arduous tasks and she becomes merely the attended egg-laying “queen.” This is the beginning of a new colony. How big do colonies become? They vary considerably, but one very large colony was made up of an estimated 238,000 ants.
Life in the colonies means laborious toil for worker ants, sexually underdeveloped females. Their tasks include finding and bringing in food, caring for the eggs and the young ones, cleaning and enlarging the nest, as well as defending the colony. Incidentally, with worker ants as caretaken, the eggs hatch into tiny white grubs that molt or shed their skin several times, becoming fully developed larvae. Some larvae spin cocoons from their own saliva. In time, the larva sheds its skin and becomes a pupa. While resting in this stage, changes occur and an adult emerges. Ants have no bones, but become hardbodied as adult insects.
Defending the colony is the task of “soldiers,” worker ants having rather formidable jaws and bigger heads. Speaking of heads, a janitor ant may block entry to the nest in a tree trunk by plugging the entrance from inside with its greatly enlarged and camouflaged head. Now, that’s really using one’s head! In defense, some ants use their stings effectively. Others spray intruders with caustic material or foul-smelling liquid that they produce. Upon contact, the caustic substance can cause a person’s skin to dry up and slough off. Insect victims may even be maimed or killed.
A Family of Many Kinds
There are ants of numerous types in the superfamily Formicoidea. Without being technical, let us look at them according to their “life-style.” Concerning the ant, the Bible says: “It prepares its food even in the summer; it has gathered its food supplies even in the harvest.” (Prov. 6:8) Once it was said that all ants were chiefly carnivorous and did not store food for the winter months due to remaining in a torpid state during that season. In the year 1871, however, a naturalist found certain ants in southern Europe that did “harvest” grain. Today it is known that some ants feed on seeds. Two very common varieties of ants in the Middle East—the black Atta barbara and the brown Atta structor—eat seeds and store them for use in winter, when it is difficult to secure food. For that matter, it is not uncommon to find the ant known as Messor semirufus nesting near threshing floors, granaries or grainfields, where their food is plentiful. Broadly known as harvester ants, certain species do ‘gather food supplies in the harvest,’ even as the Bible said centuries ago.
Some ants might be considered as “farmers.” Leafcutter ants use their jaws to cut bits of leaves and flowers. In fact, they have been known to strip an entire tree of foliage in just one night. As these insects take the pieces “home,” they appear to be carrying parasols; so they are called parasol ants. The leaves are not eaten, however. Rather, they are chewed into a mash on which fungus grows. Then the insects feast on these delicacies grown on the ants’ very own underground ‘mushroom farms.’
“Cows” of a sort are kept by some ants. These ants look after aphids (plant lice), leaf hoppers and scale insects that live on plants near the colony’s nesting site. For that matter, the brown cornfield ant keeps aphids right in its nest most of the time. With their antennae, the ants stroke the backs of their “cows,” thus ‘milking them and causing these insects to release from their abdomens a sweet substance called honeydew. On this, these ants feast ‘to their hearts’ content.’
Food storage poses no problem for the honey ants. Whether they themselves collect sweet juices from flowers or get honeydew from other insects, these ants store the delicious liquid. Some young ants continue swallowing it until they swell up to the size of a pea. Known as repletes, these living “honey pots” hang by their feet from the ceiling of the nest and give up honey from the mouth when hungry ants come along.
Whether intentionally or by accident, some ants turn out to be slave masters. They raid the nests of another species and bring home the pupae or cocoons of the other ants. Before these are eaten, however, some ants emerge and go right to work as though they originally belonged to the colony of their captors. It appears that the Amazon ant deliberately captures and enslaves other ants.
On the March!
Long-legged brown or black insects known as Driver Ants in Africa and Legionary Ants in the Americas can be quite a menace. Also called army ants, these “villains” go out in hunting parties, marching along in broad columns and devouring nearly all other insects in their path. Why, they have attacked birds and even humans, and have been known to reduce a tethered or tied horse to a mere skeleton in just hours!
Yet, there is a good side to this “villain.” Says The Animal Kingdom: “The Indians and other natives living in their palmthatch huts look forward to the appearance of driver ants. These people simply go outside and let the insects swarm through their homes, knowing that, when the ants have passed, every other insect, cockroach, fly, and spider will also be gone. Their only worry is that the colony might suddenly decide to bivouac for the night or longer in one of the houses, a situation not very pleasant for the occupants.”
Are Ants “Instinctively Wise”?
The Bible classes ants among things that are “instinctively wise.” (Prov. 30:24, 25) Scientists that have studied ants in mazes have concluded that these insects can use their sight to recognize “landmarks.” Employing the sense of smell, they can also be directed by odors. They even seem to learn from experience. None of this means, of course, that ants reason things out and make intelligent decisions. Why, when rains washed their normal odor trail away, a column of army ants accidentally started on a circular path on a sidewalk and went around and around until they all dropped dead! But of ants it has been admitted: “Small as they are when compared with man, they display memory, learning and the ability to correct mistakes.”
This is ‘instinctive wisdom’ in action. It results, not from the exercise of reasoning ability, but from the instincts with which the Creator has endowed these intriguing creatures.
By now you may realize why the “lazy one” is told, “Go to the ant.” (Prov. 6:6) Such a person can learn something about industriousness and foresight from this lowly insect. Instead of sleeping during a season favorable for work, he should be like the ant that ‘prepares its food in the summer.’ (Prov. 6:8; 30:25) In fact, if the “lazy one” happens to be loitering under a shade tree, perhaps a column of busy ants will get him into action without much delay.