“Don’t make my mistake, kid. Don’t follow orders your whole life. Think for yourself.” This quote, from the movie Antz, has been the motto that I have lived by. It has been the inspiration of many late-night conversations. These words have inspired me to carve my own path through life and live in the moment, every moment. As a kid, this was my favorite movie. A movie about an animated colony of ants that follows the story of Z, the protagonist, as he saves the future queen of the colony. It’s a bit cheesy of a storyline, but there was something more to it. Seeing little tiny insects being portrayed like people really changed my perspective on ants.
As a kid, I began to study the fire ants in my backyard. Of course, studying them usually meant disturbing their habitat in what I coined “fire drills”. Of course, sometimes, like all critters that feel threatened, the ants would fight back. There is very few things that compare to being covered from head to toe by ants. Yet, I never once lost interest in them. To be honest, If I had not already dedicated my life to studying the clouds, I would have been a myrmecologist. In the Continental US, we have many different types of ants, all that fill their own environmental niche. Army ants, slave raiding ants, harvester ants, and carpenter ants to name a few.
With this trip being my first time out of the country, I was more than preoccupied with worries to really learn about what ants I would find here in Costa Rica. It didn’t take long before we saw ants everywhere; within the first week, we saw leaf cutter ants. I was beyond excited at what I saw, but rather than use my phone to look up info on these fascinating creatures, I utilized the moment to ask one of the head reforesters, Victorino, what these ants were doing. He gave this incredible story about how they farm fungi for their source of food. He also told me how much of a pest they were in reforestation, and how to get rid of them in an environmentally friendly way. These ants were fascinating, but not the only ants around. While on one of our field days, there was a Cecropia tree covered with ants. This particular ant species, Azteca, has a beautiful relationship with the tree in which the ants provide protection from herbivorous bugs and the tree provides a habitat and food for the ants.
Ants are great from a distance, but up close, they are not as fun. While heading down to the lowlands, we were moving some trees to a truck for delivery, and one of the trees species had a ant hill under its nest. Needless to say, a few hands were bitten. This was one of the most painful bites I’ve experienced, but the pain subsided fairly quickly. Later in the week, I was bit by an ant on my arm and it swelled up to a half egg size. After some Benadryl, the swelling subsided. As they say in Costa Rica, ant bites are “good for the immune system!”
Ants are much more than small creatures that give painful bites and pester farmers. They help with the decomposition of organic material in the world. They far outnumber the human population, and some estimate that they are around 50 percent of the insect biomass of our planet. They also have a work ethic that is almost unparalleled. I hate to make the comparison, but, when our group really gets to working, we are almost as efficient as ants. In the words of Lewis Thomas, myrmecologist, “Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, and exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.”