from Cody and the Fountain of Happiness
by Tricia Springstubb
illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
Candlewick Press, 2015
One day, several years ago, I went to the small park near my house and sat at the base of a favorite tree to think and wonder. My thoughts must have wandered into existential territory as I watched an ant crawl onto a fallen leaf. What universal plan would I upset if I moved the leaf with the ant on it? Would it survive in a new environment? Would it know where it was? How to get food? Would my ant recognize anyone in its new environment?
I decided it was time to go home.
But I continued thinking about how much influence any of us has over our surroundings. Well, we can keep our footprints small by avoiding plastic and understanding that when we throw something away, it just gets put somewhere else. We can consume less and re-use more. We can be informed voters.
How all beings are connected and how everything in our complicated world is necessary, to a greater or lesser extent, gnaws at my imagination and taps for my attention.
I know about worms and how they aerate soil and how their droppings are excellent natural fertilizer. But what about those ants? Like worms, lots of them live under the ground. Are they also useful, like worms are?
The study of ants is called myrmecology. It is well known that ants, like bees live in intricate social systems. A colony can have several fertile females (queens), but it behooves their social order to have fewer rather than more. Worker ants, like worker bees, are all female. They tend the young, forage for food, and defend the colony. Male ants mate with the queen, then, their usefulness complete, they die. The queens continue to lay eggs.
Ants have lived on earth for over 80 million years. They escaped the great extinction that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. A new study reported by CNN last week, estimates about 20 quadrillion individual ants are living on our earth at any moment in time. I can’t imagine a number that large, but it must be around a gajillion. Maybe 20,000 trillion is easier to understand, but for me, that’s still about a gajillion. Even entomologists were surprised at the huge number of ants. Etymologists may have been surprised, too, but for very different reasons.
Scientists examined 489 studies that spanned every continent on earth and discovered that ants are found all over the world, but are more prevalent in the tropics than in colder regions.
Ants are beneficial for all the reasons you already know. They turn and aerate the soil as efficiently as earthworms, ensuring plant roots get the air and water they need. Ants often take seeds into their tunnels for food, and some seeds inevitably sprout, encouraging plant dispersion. Ants serve as both predators and prey. Many ants feed on termites. Some like the juicy honeydew aphids produce. And ants are food for other insects, birds, and carnivorous plants like pitcher plants.
Eating insects, entomophagy, is uncommon here in the US and in most parts of the West, but it is estimated that two billion of the eight billion people on earth are entomophagists, insect eaters. People in Asia, Africa, and Latin America depend on insects for an important protein source. Beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps, and ants are an important part of their diet. Some of the most popular types of edible ants are leaf-cutting, weaver, honey, and black ants.
Larvae and adult ants are prepared by roasting, frying, and boiling. They are common ingredients in recipes and as a condiment. While their nutritional value varies depending on species, metamorphical stage, and preparation methods, ants are high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Their low environmental impact combined with their high protein value make ants a viable component to finding a solution for world hunger.
More human studies are needed to determine exact nutritional values, but in general, ants, with only a few exceptions, are safe to eat and are environmentally friendly.
Besides their ecological and nutritional benefits, ants are useful to networking engineers who study their social systems to create their own more efficient and sophisticated networking systems.
Then there’s the industriousness of ants. They’ve been a model for good behavior in story and song from Aesop’s “Grasshopper and the Ant” to Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes.”
I don’t know what happened to the ant I displaced that day so many years ago. I like to think that it had the symbolic effect of proving resilience, adaptability, and perseverance.
-—be curious! (and industrious)