The Ants, the Ants….Full of Fire

I don’t like fire ants. Really, I hate them and I try not to hate things. They are impossible to eradicate. They tolerate extreme cold and when flooding occurs, they create a raft with the queen in the center as pictured above. Houston residents are plagued now by scores of these floating rafts in the floodwaters there following the hurricane.

When I walk or stand near their nest, many of them will crawl onto my foot and, then get on their little IPhones and all bite me at the same time. Actually, I have recently learned  that they do not communicate through electronics; they communicate through chemistry.

Illustrating the wide divergence of human tastes, scientist E.O. Wilson loves ants, all 10 billion of them. He particularly loves fire ants. As a young man in the 1950’s, he decided to discover the mechanism used by ants to communicate with each other. Observing that one ant can mark a trail for other ants to a food source, he dissected hundreds of fire ants. The little ant abdomen was about the size of a grain of salt so, using a microscope, he took out each of their teeny organs, and made an extract which he served out to his fire ant friends. He got no particular response until he made a chemical compound from the organ named Dufour’s gland. The ants went crazy, imagining, I suppose they were being alerted to a feast. link

Wilson was not satisfied with finding this chemical compound; he wanted to obtain enough of it to make a molecular analysis. Pictured here, he looks like such a nice man–not crazy at all. But he enlisted two scientist friends and they traveled to Jacksonville where fire ants live in huge mounds. They shoveled the ants into large containers to take back to the lab. Wilson quips that his helpers were glad to get out of the field and back to the lab since the ants did not suffer being shoveled lightly and covered the scientists with painful bites that form itchy white pustules within a few days.

Wilson is now the world’s leading expert on ants and has won dozens of accolades including two Pulitzer prizes, one of which was for the book, The Ants published in 1991. He and other scientists worldwide have studied the communication skills of ants for decades now–this enterprise seems surprisingly well funded and has made it clear that all ants talk to each other. link

They “talk” using scented chemicals produced from glands found all over their bodies. These chemicals are called pheromones and are a kind of perfume that translates into words. Each species uses at least ten to twenty different pheromones. These ‘chemical words’ can be used to summon a couple of ants or thousands of ants, depending on what is required. Sometimes, for example, ants will be summoned to attack an invader; sometimes to make a trek to a food source for the colony; sometimes to die to save the colony. link

 “When an ant is squashed it releases a different pheromone that warns the others of potential danger. Pheromones also help ants to distinguish between different family members, nest mates and strangers.” There are dozens of known meanings to these pheromome communications and likely more to come. link

Highly aggressive fire ants came to us from South America and are considered an invasive species. When they arrive they push out most native species and create huge underground homes. Getting rid of fire ants? Impossible. I have had friends recommend diatomaceous earth, coffee grounds, vinegar, hot water and chemicals like Amdro. I am currently using, with some success, Spinosad, an organic soil additive. For all our talk, talk, talk the ants seem to stay ahead of us–they always come back.

Wilson and other scientists believe that on balance, ants are a positive force in nature as compared to humans. Wilson imagines a world without ants as a world in trouble; and a world without humans as a world back in balance. Ant lovers all seem to be hard on humans.

As a child I was taught humans were superior because we are the only being with an opposable thumb. This has been now found to be untrue. Then I ‘learned’ we were the only being to use tools. Also untrue. And one of the most treasured human attributes, our ability to communicate now seems to be shared. Ants are reported to be able to order the removal of a dead ant body from the hive; to worry that the queen is not doing well and start hatching a new queen; and apparently, to advise the nest that a couple of hundred ants should be sent to the dog dishes of the Plantswoman if her dogs do not promptly finish their dinner. Of course, I am providing English translations to the perfume language.

I also have been taught that humans are the only creature that displays emotion. But I invite any of you– any day, any time– to join me and we will hit an ant hill with a long stick. The fire ants will boil out of the ground in a rage–their anger almost makes the ground shake.


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