Last year I stood on our terrasse and stared down at the lawn below. Funny, I thought. It hasn’t rained for three days. So why is that patch of grass shimmering as though we’ve just had a downpour? As though someone has just scattered ground glass over it? I went down the steps and bent closer. Not glass. Not rain. But the wings of flying ants. Dozens. Hundreds. Thousands. Everywhere. In fact the grass was completely covered in millions and millions – literally – of ants.
I asked a French friend what it was all about. He did the Gallic thing: shrug, hands spread to either side, grimace. “Flying Ant Day is coming up,” he said. Apparently, the entire Dordogne, Aquitaine, Perigord – whatever you want to call it – and possibly the entire southern half of France, experiences this phenomenon annually. The ants wait on the ground until the signal is given by the queens, then they rise en masse, forming clouds so dark that they blot out the sky, and then proceed to mate on the wing. They’re not seen again until the following year. The signal depends very exactly on temperature, humidity and light, and Flying Ant Day tends to be almost the same date every year. Friends driving at the time have had to stop the car because of the sheer mass of the insects.
We lead peripatetic lives and when we’re in Australia, we spend most of our time in Sandy Bay, a suburb of Hobart. Tasmania is absolutely riddled with ant colonies, many of the inhabitants of said colonies being frighteningly toxic. So much so that the first year I was invited out there as a Writer in Residence, the Government had just appointed a Minister for Ants. How quaint, I thought. How very antipodean.
But of course, at the time I had no idea of the extent of the problem. They are prolific and everywhere. There are 20,000 species of ants, and a large proportion of those seem to live on the ground floor of our home. Inadvertently leave two grains of sugar unwiped on the kitchen counter, and the next morning the place will look as though someone had nipped in during the night and painted it black.
I believe the post of Ant Minister was discontinued shortly after it was inaugurated, simply because of the near-impossibility of controlling the critters. And some of them are lethal. Jumping Jack ants, for instance, killed a Tasmanian recently. Stung him to death. Not a nice way to go. And we all know that in ancient times, if you were unlucky enough to survive a battle and get captured, as like as not the enemy would strip you, stake you out on the battlefield, smear you with honey and let the ants get on with it.
They’re not just vicious with fallen captives. They’re also fairly nasty with each other, especially if only distantly rather than closely related to each other. Being closely related apparently promotes harmony within the colony. So rather different from humans, then. When they attack fellow ants – usually a intrusive queen or a worker from another colony – they spray the trespasser with venom or formic acid, the stuff which make ant bites painful, then chew on its body parts, and indulge in a particular form of torture called ‘spread-eagling.’. Sounds nasty – and is. The intruder is surrounded and then slowly amputated, by having its legs or antennae bitten off.
Ants are the dominant species living on the globe and have been around for over fifty million years. Their organizations are second only in complexity to those of humans. Each colony works as a whole unit with thousands of component parts, and each individual contributes to the whole. Some ant expert has likened each colony to a vast collective brain. Bees are supposed to be intricately organized, but the ant is streets ahead of any bee.
French ants probably behave in much the same way as the cannibalistic ones mentioned above. One quality they do have here, which I’ve never observed anywhere else, is the ability to materialise without warning in the middle of the kitchen counter. Not at the edge. One nanosecond they’re not there, the next they are. No preliminaries, like emerging from the wall and running across the formica top. It’s magical. Like shape-shifting. France of course is the home of Jean de la Fontaine, who rendered some of Aesop’s fables into French verse, most notably La Cigalle et la Fourmi – The Grasshopper and the Ant – in which the improvident grasshopper sings the summer away, while the prudent ant busies herself with amassing food for the winter. Winter comes, and the tuneful grasshopper finds herself with an empty larder. When she goes round to the ant in the hope of begging a crust or two, the ant suggests, with a highly-developed sarcasm, that since the grasshopper sang all summer long, maybe she should dance all through the winter, instead of coming round expecting handouts. The grasshopper should have read her Bible more closely and read in the Book of Proverbs, ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise, Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.’
Unlike ants, La Fontaine was a curiously absent-minded man. I’ve heard the anecdote before, about other people, but he is supposed to be the original guy who bumped into his own son one day and when the son identified himself, said, “Oh right, I thought I’d seen you before somewhere.“ As for going out to see people with his stockings on inside out, another of his foibles, we get a lot of that round here, my mathematician husband also being fairly vague in the matter of sartorial correctness.
He suggests that the ideal solution – to the ants, not to his socks – would be a pet ant-eater. I’ll have to browse the ads in the Dordogne Valley Network, a local electronic version of what in England used to be called the Exchange & Mart.