Invasion

In Esquire, Tom Junod writes about the Argentine Ants which invaded his home and their rather familiar motives:

I am here with a report from the front. I am here to tell you that the numbers suggesting an equivalence between ants and humans are not fanciful scientific estimates but rather reliable indicators of what to expect if ants invade your home — or if, from the ants’ point of view, you decide to live on top of an ant colony. If you think the numbers sound like abstractions, if you wonder what deranged census-taker came to the conclusion that in the shadow of each and every human being there lives a hidden host of 1.6 million, well, that only means you haven’t attempted the experiment of peacefully coexisting with them. If you do, however, you will find that the numbers sound just about right. Three humans live in my house, which would mean by that calculation, 4.8 million ants might live around it, licking at the walls or, more often than not, infesting them. But, hell, I’m sure I counted 4.8 million just on my daughter’s swing set, which we had to dispense with in part because its steel tubes regularly poured forth ants and ant larvae like sand, and my daughter finally freaked out. I’m sure I counted something close to 4.8 million the day I turned over my canoe and figured that its bottom was filled with wet leaves, until those leaves started to vibrate en masse, started to move. “The numbers are just incredible,” says Mike Rust, a professor of entomology at the University of California at Riverside. “We’ll do population surveys at night. We’ll go to a house and put out ten sugar-water stations around the house and another ten around the property. In the morning, the sugar water will be gone, and we’ll have counted six hundred thousand to eight hundred thousand ants. And that’s in a night.

And yet the numbers aren’t the worst part. The worst part is the intelligence of the numbers. A few years ago, I interviewed the great biologist E. O. Wilson right before he and his colleague Bert Hölldobler published their magnum opus, The Superorganism. The book, a study of ant societies, was an exploration of the notion that ants are such organized organisms that they almost don’t count as individual organisms at all but rather as cells of the colony they serve. The colony is the superorganism, and as Wilson told me, “an ant colony is far more intelligent than an ant.” I’ll say. An ant by itself is an inoffensive creature, at worst a crunchy annoyance, smidgeny and obsessively clean and, above all, dumb, with a pindot of a brain. An ant by itself is not going to get any ideas… the problem being that it’s rarely by itself, that it’s representative of something, and that what it represents not only has ideas — it has designs. Wilson’s book proposes that what an ant colony possesses is a kind of accumulated intelligence, the result of individual ants carrying out specialized tasks and giving one another constant feedback about what they find as they do so. Well, once they start accumulating in your house in sufficient numbers, you get a chance to see that accumulated intelligence at work. You get a chance to find out what it wants. And what you find out — what the accumulated intelligence of the colony eventually tells you — is that it wants what you want. You find out that you, an organism, are competing for your house with a superorganism that knows how to do nothing but compete. You are not only competing in the most basic evolutionary sense; you are competing with a purely adaptive intelligence, and so you are competing with the force of evolution itself.

Junod points out later in the article that Leaf-Cutter Ants were growing and harvesting mushrooms 12 million years before humans and so could make the claim that they were in fact the first civilization on the planet to practice agriculture.

Invasion [Esquire]

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