Thursday, June 7, 2012

Farming Ants

The girls started a new industry at our little farm recently: ant husbandry. A couple of weeks ago, they ran inside asking for some plastic containers for their new livestock. "New livestock?" I asked, not sure if I should be alarmed. "Hmmmm. That sounds interesting." "Yes!" they excitedly confirmed, "We're going to raise ants!" Their Auntie Jules (who was with us for another fun-filled working weekend) quickly grabbed several items from the cupboard to give them, and they happily rushed back outside.

Evidently, Segi and Simi had been immersed in their make-believe "playings" in the Enchanted Garden--their name for the little wooded garden area near the bird fountain in front of the house--when they found a few ants crawling around on the ground underneath them. They had quickly agreed that these creatures needed some extra TLC. So they laid down some bedding, put out bottle caps for water troughs, and for feed buckets, set out the plastic containers Jules handed them. Now at each meal of the day, Segi (the 7-year-old) not only lays aside a bit of food for Ragamuffin (the fairy who rides around on her shoulder and sneaks our socks at night) but for the ants as well. She's given them lots of apple, banana and pear bits, as well as pieces of bread, crackers, cookies, chips, pretzels, and vegetables. She says that their favorite food so far is banana slices.

Luckily, it's not too complicated to figure out what to feed members of the formicidae family. They are tiny but voracious omnivores, and even though they are partial to sweets, they will consume nearly anything that has the potential to nourish them: seeds, oils, fruits, vegetables, and sometimes other insects and dead animals. This dietary flexibility has allowed them to thrive on all the world's continents except for Antarctica. Their eating is generally a communal, cooperative endeavor. According to the article "What Do Ants Eat?" at,

Ants will utilize scouts to locate food and then lay down a trail for the rest to follow back to it. They accomplish this by using chemicals called pheromones, which they lay down after finding something to eat. They will eat what they find and then head back to the colony where the pheromones will cause the other ants to get worked up and leave to follow the trail back to the source. They will use their antennae in the air and locate the trail, eventually establishing a path that the rest of the colony can easily follow. The ants need to do this quickly before ants from other colonies discover the food.

Some ants also work together as farmers! Ants whose preferred food is honeydew, a sugary-sticky liquid produced by plant-eating aphids, have been know to collectively raise aphids both for their honeydew and for meat. Researchers at the Imperial College London discovered a few years ago that ants sometimes seem to be sedating their itty-bitty livestock to better control them. According to the study (cited in this 2007 article in Science Daily) they "use the tranquillising [sic] chemicals in their footprints to maintain a populous 'farm' of aphids close to their colony, to provide honeydew on tap." Wow--who knew ants were such complex, fascinating creatures? Actually, quite a lot of biologists, including the founder of sociobiology, Harvard professor and renowned author, E.O. Wilson. But of course, most of the rest of tend to assume they're just another one of those irritating little creatures better shooed from the picnic table than attended to.

Children can teach us so many, many things. One of the most valuable lessons my own kids have taught me (over and over again--like most adults, I need repeated instruction before most lessons even begin to sink in) is the value of looking with wonder and appreciation at objects and beings we've grown to consider mundane and thus uninteresting. When we allow ourselves to do so, the world immediately becomes a much richer place to be. Suddenly, the constant planning, calculating, and fretting most of us spend so much of our time immersed in gives way to awe, and we can--if only for a moment--be truly present. I think this must be the revolution that Alice Walker urges us toward in her poem, "We Alone."

We alone can devalue gold 
by not caring 
if it falls or rises 
in the marketplace. 

Wherever there is gold 
there is a chain, you know, 
and if your chain 
is gold 
so much the worse 
for you. 

Feathers, shells 

and sea-shaped stones 
are all as rare. 

This could be our revolution: 

to love what is plentiful 
as much as 
what is scarce.

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