Off the Trail

I notice an army of ants on my windowsill, gleaning a rag I had used to clean the kitchen.  My first impulse is to wrap them in an airtight plastic bag and throw it out. Instead, I take the dirty rag and the dozen or so ants clinging to it over to the other window and set them in my window box by the dead rue.

Back at the windowsill, the main contingent of ants is running confusion. Suddenly, for them, and perhaps inexplicably, this vast amount of food has disappeared. Again, I have an impulse to squash these ants. They are in my room. However, and perhaps I’m overly optimistic about ants, I have faith they can find their way back to the colony as easily as they found their way in here.

But these other ants who are attached to the rag, what will they do? Don’t they know they need to crawl back to the colony? Perhaps they can’t, being too far removed from the scent of the trail and their comrades. I consider carrying the dirty rag back to reunite them, but I’ve already made enough waves. Besides, if I return the rag to where it was, then none of the ants will leave my room.

Do they even want to return to the colony? They have a huge supply of food. Maybe in their minds they’re exactly where they need to be. But their function was to acquire food and bring it back. Do they have to, like, choose?

The ants still in touch with the colony appear frenzied, yet under severe control. They are grouped in clusters where the rag was. Individuals go back and forth, standing face-to-face and rubbing antennae. Some ants rub their own faces, chew at the ground, then rub at their faces again. Periodically, a group of two or three breaks away and squeezes through a needle-sized hole in the wall.

The ants still on the dirty rag in the window box move lethargically, if at all. One of them carries a large morsel of food to the edge of the rag, turns around, and stays put without letting go.

  1. #1 by Katheter on September 18, 2012 - 12:53 pm

    NPR had a great segment last week about ants. Ants, they say, are virtually brainless. They accomplish little by themselves, but can collectively move a mountain (or, realistically, a mound.) NPR extrapolated to the strength of the collective human brain. An example…

    A researcher watched a contest at a county fair where individuals guessed the weight of a hog. Of the 800 or so guesses, apparently no one hit the exact number. People guessed too little and too much. The researcher asked the guy running the contest for the slips people had filled out with their guesses. When taking the average (or is it the mean, median or mode? haha) of all guesses, the number came very close to the actual weight of the hog. Collectively, perhaps like ants, we are stronger than the individual.

  2. #2 by Gopher Padfoot on September 19, 2012 - 11:04 am

    That is exactly why I appreciate comments so much. I need to run my ideas past other people and gain their perspective.

    I heard that segment about ants and the human brain, too. It makes sense: in the brain there is no single neuron that directs all the others. And so it is in society- there is no prophet or king or author that dictates to the rest what to do. Actually, if I am to model my behavior on ants and neurons, I ought to LISTEN more.

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