It’s a bug’s life

Last week when I moved into my rented bungalow in Thailand I noticed a few tiny ants about the place. Not many – maybe two or three in the kitchen, the occasional one walking across the bed, one or two in the bathroom. They were no bother, I figured they were looking for food and so was careful not to leave any crumbs or spills about as one ant can turn into hundreds at the mere sniff of a splash of orange juice.

I put my rubbish meticulously into a plastic bag in the bathroom bin and there was nothing more than a few pistachio shells and an empty cornflakes packet. Nonetheless the next time I looked there was a dual carriageway of ants marching purposefully between a small crack in the skirting and the bin. They carefully navigated the rim of the bin and some stood by while others made the death-defying, slippery descent into the plastic bag to retrieve cornflake crumbs and bits of pistachio nut.

I was amused and impressed by this display of organisation and co-operation but didn’t really think it was ideal to have all these ants in the house so I took the bin bag outside to the main bins. A few hours later a group of about 50 ants was standing near the bin as though having a meeting about what to do next and then shortly after, they’d all gone. I decided to put a new bin bag somewhere they couldn’t reach so I hung it from a sticking-out screw in the bathroom wall and went to make a cuppa.

While making the cuppa I spilled a penny-sized drop of soya milk on the worktop and quickly wiped it up before taking my drink to the bedroom. When I took my empty cup back to the kitchen I noticed a penny-sized group of ants on the worktop where I thought I’d wiped up the milk. This group was being joined by a long line of ants stretching across the kitchen worktop, round the corner, into the bedroom, past the skirting board, down the step into the bathroom, along the floor (always sticking to the edges) and into the small crack in the bathroom wall at floor level.

I gently shooed them off the worktop with the yellow sponge and gave the area a good clean and, within minutes, all the ants had disappeared.

I had a nice packet of cashew nuts with my drink and put the empty wrapper in the cunningly-placed carrier bag in the bathroom – I was proud of my strategy – there’s NO WAY they’d find it there!

But, I kid you not, when I went back in the bathroom an hour later for my shower, there was an organised army of ants marching between the hole in the corner and the carrier bag dangling from a screw about 5ft up the opposite wall. They came at it from above as well; they shimmied across the dado rail and slowly, being careful not to slip, climbed down the shiny, vertical, tiled wall, across the sticking-out screw and the bag handle and into the bag. But what really blew me away was, the ones coming back were carrying tiny pieces of cashew nut several times the size of their own little bodies! Out of a cashew bag, out of a plastic carrier bag, up a slippery tiled wall and across a distance the equivalent of a few miles to us. And they could make it back in less than three minutes! After a while the activity started to die down. As I watched them I noticed that every ant, as they passed each other on the way to/from the bin bag, would stop and interact with each other. This interaction was only for a second and consisted of them facing head on, waggling their antennae before carrying on their way although, sometimes the interaction would be followed by the ant who had been heading toward the bin bag now changing direction to go back to the hole in the wall… It was all rather fascinating and did make me wonder what they were “saying”.

These ants, measuring no more than 4mm in length, displayed spectacular intelligence, adapting quickly to a new environment and reacting immediately to new stimulus, communicating efficiently to their group, yet I can bet most of us have never really considered them to be anything more than a bit of a nuisance.

The majority of us likely has at least a vague awareness of the intelligence of some household pets – cats, dogs, birds, etc. – but, what about the creatures we don’t regularly interact with? Is it fair or accurate to consider them lesser beings simply because they’re not human? I wonder, if you had the choice of hiring an employee with the agility, brain, brawn, commitment, communication skills, teamwork and tenacity of an average ant, or that of an average human, which would you go for?