Wednesday, September 07, 2011

`Consider Her Ways, and Be Wise'

I’ve been stung twice by fire ants, both times shortly after moving to Houston, and both stings were self-administered. Call me curious. The first time was in a city park where I’d taken my younger sons to play. I was seated on a bench when I noticed ants moving about the sidewalk in front of me. They were copper-colored and innocuously small, and I wondered if they could be the legendary fire ants I’d heard so much about. I lifted one between thumb and index finger, he crawled across my palm, and nailed me. The resulting itch was more annoying than the initial jolt of pain.

Bee and wasp stings had hurt more, at least in memory. A few days later I noticed a black ant crawling across the dashboard of my car. I picked him up, preparing to throw him out the window, when he stung the tip of my thumb. This “blaze of pain” seemed more intense than the first time, and I was left with a lingering, itchy lump. The narrator of Proverbs 6:6-8 (King James Bible) warns his son:

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.”

My middle son was about four years old when he considered the ways of the fire ant while learning to ride a bicycle. He fell off his bike down the block from our house and landed on a nest. The doctor counted thirty-three stings, mostly on his legs. Seven years later, he claims not to remember.

Since returning to Houston more than two months ago, I’ve seen fire ants every day, mostly lone scouts on sidewalk and patio. I admire their industry, without “guide, overseer, or ruler” (except genes and pheromones), and think we could learn from their example, but I’ve exhausted my need for first-hand investigation of Solenopsis invicta. Now I rely on secondary sources. Here is Walter R. Tschinkel in his definitive work, The Fire Ants (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006, 752 pages):

“I love fire ants. Most of my neighbors in the American South find this love completely incomprehensible, because most of them hate fire ants with a passion equally strong. My passion has fed and been fed by 35 years of poking into fire ants’ secrets, of trying to understand the rhythms of their everyday lives as well as the drama of their several rites of passage.”

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