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Inspiring Insects: Ants as Sources of Literary Afflatus

If one assumes that insects are only of interest to entomologists, biologists, agriculturalists, and other members of the science community, he or she has neglected to consider the proliferation of insects in literature. Ants alone have interested scores of creative minds from all eras and societies. Tales of the Formicidae family are integral to the folk stories in both African and American Indian mythology. According to Wikipedia.org, “Some Native American religions, such as Hopi mythology, recognize ants as the very first animals” (Wikipedia 2006). In addition, the Aesop’s fable entitled “The Ant and the Grasshopper” illustrates Ancient Greece’s perception of ants being persevering workers (Page By Page Books 2004).

            Even many centuries after the creation of the aforementioned folk tales, the ant has not faded from the forefront of literature. One example of recent ant-inspired literature is Joanie Mackowski’s poem entitled “Ants,” which Poetry published in 2000. In it, the speaker notices while bathing that she has company; several ants are infiltrating her bathroom. They enter from the baseboard and proceed to explore all the areas of her bathroom, including the narrator’s bath tub, window, towel, and soap (Mackowski 2000).

            The narrator’s tiny guests pique her interest, causing her think more deeply about the significance of their behaviors. Throughout the course of the poem, she makes several interesting observations about the ants trekking through her bathroom. These observations include ants’ categorization as social organisms, ant aggression and warfare, and ant queens’ and males’ mating flights. Mackowski explores and critiques these widely known and scientifically-studied ant behaviors to illustrate her view of the world.

The first notable ant trait Mackowski mentions is ants’ classification as social organisms. The poet writes: “Peterson’s/calls them ‘social creatures,’ yet what grim/society” (Mackowski 2000). In these lines, Mackowski refers to a brand of field guides called “Peterson’s” that publishes informational books about plants, animals, ecology, and other areas of interest to biology enthusiasts. Thus, the speaker of the poem hints at having taken enough interest in her bathroom’s arthropod invaders to read one of Peterson’s field guides about insects, or at least the guide’s ant section.

            One can find more details about the character of ant societies in Francis L.W. Ratnieks et al’s journal article entitled “Conflict Resolution in Insect Societies.” The article, published in the recent 2006 edition of the Annual Review of Entomology, theorizes that while “best known for cooperation, insect societies also manifest many potential conflicts among individuals” (Ratnieks et al 2006). While it is clear that ants cooperate by searching for food, protecting the colony from invaders, constructing additions to the colony, and nursing the queen’s newborn offspring, ant societies also experience at least a small amount of inner conflict.

            A few examples of conflicts that can occur in an ant colony include the existence of selfish individuals who unfairly exploit the group’s shared resources; discrepancies in queen rearing when there are either several queens in a colony or there are several males who mated with the queen; and quarrels between female workers and their queens about who will produce males. The outcome of the latter struggle determines the relatedness of ants in a colony since males produced by workers will not be as closely related to the queen as the queen’s direct descendants. Because an ant is more likely to remain loyal to another ant if they two closely related than if their kinship is more distant, ant colonies that maintain a high level of relatedness usually succeed in avoiding conflict. The problem of distant relation often fixes itself, however, because the threat of violence deters members of a colony from creating conflicts (Ratnieks et al 2006).

            Perhaps from reading a Peterson’s insect guide, Mackowski understands the scientifically-proven assertion that ants are social creatures, but at the same time she laments the characteristics of their society. This is apparent in Mackowski’s noticeable use of the adjective “grim.” She explains this statement by writing that the ants in her bathroom are “identical pilgrims.” Although this may seem true to the casual observer, if ants could protest this misconception, they would. As Ratnieks et al write, “potential conflict in insect societies is inevitable because insect societies are almost always families, not clones” (2006). The ants themselves can decipher their degree of relation to other ants, and they are not all identical clones. Because ant conflicts derive from distant relatedness, if all ants in a colony are identical to each other, there is be little to no conflict between them.

            Mackowski also believes ant society is grim because of their seemingly unsympathetic behaviors. After the narrator effortlessly crushes some ants, she notices the survivors “pausing on the path/only three seconds to touch another’s face,/some hoisting the papery carcasses/of their dead in their jaws” (2000). The ants’ only acknowledgement to their comrades’ deaths is to stop and determine whether or not the fallen ants are dead by touching their faces. Afterwards, some ants lifted the dead in their jaws, which Mackowski may intend to infer cannibalism. Mackowski’s use of cannibalism and apathy for the dead indicates that violence does not faze ants since it is a part of their everyday lives.

The article “Ritualised versus aggressive behaviours” by J. L. Mercier, A. Lenoir and A. Dejean addresses the issue of ant aggression in depth. “Aggression and interference competition,” they write, “have been known to play key roles in the organisation of ant communities” (Mercier et al 1997). Thus, from the first sentence in their introduction, Mercier et al confirm Mackowski’s notion that ant societies encounter violence regularly. According to the authors’ study, when workers or foraging queens of one colony intrude into another colony’s territory, the ant subjects performed both ritualized and aggressive displays. Ritualized displays are not actual violence but instead the threats of violence. Ants act out these displays, which include rapidly wiggling their antennas or flashing their mandibles, in order to warn that they may attack if provoked any further.

The ants in the study also attacked each other. They sprayed each other with formic acid and venom; bit each other’s mandibles, antennas, and legs; and “spread-eagled” each other. Mercier et al write that spread-eagling occurs when several residents of a colony catch an intruder. Because the intruder cannot escape, the residents surround and amputate it by each biting and yanking one leg or antenna. In addition, the authors report an instance in which several hunting workers teamed up to attack a large enemy: “The prey are numbed or paralysed by several bites followed by venom spraying. The hunting workers then return to the nest to recruit nestmates that cut up the prey on the spot” (Mercier et al 1997). With their characteristic teamwork, ants can fell a prey item that could easily overcome them in a one-on-one confrontation.

Later in the poem, Mackowski makes reference to the methods by which ants mate: “‘Mating occurs/in flight’--what better way? Weightless, reckless/rapture: the winged queen and her mate, quantum/passion spiraling near the kumquat” (2000). Mackowski’s use of the word “reckless” to describe ant reproduction reinforces the idea that ants’ lives are riddled with danger. The “what better way” comment is the narrator’s way of saying that ants’ seemingly reckless yet passionate mating method befits these adventurous insects that value their lives very little and teeter on the brink of death every moment of their short lives. The quantum passion of which Mackowski writes is only for her purposes of artistic expression, but the idea that male ants inseminate females while flying is scientifically correct.

Elwood S. McCluskey’s report called “Periodicity and diversity in ant mating flights” scientifically documents ants’ weightless, reckless rapture. According to McCluskey, mature male and female ants from different colonies meet and reproduce while airborne, after which the female becomes a queen and founds her own colony. Moreover, for each ant species there is a different time of day and year for mating flights. McCluskey provides mating information for the species Prenolepis imparis and Solenopsis maniosa to serve as examples. While ants in the former begin their mating flights in “early spring in the warmest part of the day,” ants in the latter start in “early summer in late afternoon before sunset” (McCluskey 1992). Furthermore, all the different ant species of a genus generally mate at the same time of year as each other. Near the end of his report, McCluskey proposes a likely theory: ants’ intraspecific flight synchronization enables easier breeding between same-species members of different colonies, which would be much more difficult if all ant species initiated their flights simultaneously.

Furthermore, the overall meaning of Joanie Mackowski’s poem is open to interpretation. Is she making an outraged social statement, using the recklessness and violence of grim ant society as an allegory to modern society? Is she lamenting the fragility of human life by comparing people to ants that can be crushed with the light press of a finger?  Perhaps Mackowski’s poem calls for a life of moderation, using dead ants as an example of what can happen when one lives too vigorously. On the other hand, “Ants” may be celebrating the virtues of curiosity and adventure by describing the perilous yet exciting lives of ants. These hypotheses may all contain elements of truth, or they may all be flawed. In any case, one thing is certain. Joanie Mackowski’s “Ants” is a fine example of a piece of literature that uses insect behaviors to convey one or more of its author’s attitudes about life. The fact that authors of all different nationalities and periods of history can interpret the behaviors of the same insect differently is a testament to the timeless appeal of these six-legged wonders.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Mackowski, J.V., 2000. Ants. Poetry 176: 8-9.

McCluskey, E.S., 1992. Periodicity and diversity in ant mating flights. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Physiology 103: 241-243.

Mercier, J.L., A. Lenoir, and A. Dejean, 1997. Ritualised versus aggressive behaviors displayed by Polyrhachis laboriosa (F. Smith) during intraspecific competition. Behavioural Processes 41: 39-50.

Page By Page Books. 2004 Nov 24. The Ant and the Grasshopper. <http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Aesop/Aesops_Fables/The_Ant_and_the_Grasshopper_p1.html>. Accessed 2006 Apr 17.

Ratnieks, F.L.W., K.R. Foster, and T. Wenseleers, 2006. Conflict resolution in insect societies. Annual Review of Entomology 51: 581-608.

Wikipedia. 2006 Apr 17. Ant. <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ant&oldid=48780669>. Accessed 2006 Apr 17.

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