JM Ledgard in More Intelligent Life:
They work together, share food and send their elders into battle to protect the young. And the world authority on them thinks they have a lot to teach us. J.M. Ledgard goes to Harvard to discuss ants, and more, with E.O. Wilson
What do you think about when you think about ants? An aerial view perhaps, looking down at a line of ants moving along a trail. Go closer. If you stay with it, your view may twist, your ants grow, become singular, each an alien creature, somehow militarised. As primitives we ate them, they were our crunch, and now they are lodged in our subconscious. We know their noise in the soil, even if we do not acknowledge it. The mandibles dominate, snipping, giving the ant its name in Old English, “aemette”, from the proto-Germanic ai mait, meaning to cut away, or to cut off. Even in that early time in Anglo-Saxon lands there was a grim sense of ants swarming, and now we know that army ants move in waves of a million or more, eating through anything in their path, someone staked and tied to the ground, for instance. The blank eyes, the glands under the jawbone secreting pheromones that signal alarm, laid down by foraging ants and reinforced by following ants to show the shortest possible route to a source of food. The antennae, cantilevered at the elbow, twitching at speeds our eye cannot follow. The slender waist, the shimmer and bristle of the exoskeleton, red or black, metallic, so that the ant corpse rots from within, leaving the armour intact. Whereas we are jellies, prick us and do we not bleed…? One way or another, when we think about ants, we tend not to think they are a part of us, or that they have something fundamental to say about us. But they probably do.