Adamant Nature

Greg Dawson is feeling kind of antsy about a possible takeover from below.

One of the big summer movies, coming to a sticky-floored theater near you in July, is Ant-Man, based on the Marvel Comics character. Paul Rudd plays the hero in a shiny ant suit and helmet that endow him with super powers.

“Imagine a soldier the size of an insect—the ultimate weapon!” booms the voice in an online trailer. (Note to John Kerry: Do not let Iran get hold of this technology.)

In a scene from the trailer, one of the forces of evil mocks our hero.

“Did you think you could stop the future? You’re just a thing.”

“No, I’m Ant-Man.”

OK, so Ant-Man is no threat to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. But as I researched this column, checking the Internet and the kitchen counter for ants, I recalled another movie that claimed five Oscars and first alerted me to the threat posed by ants—not just to family picnics but to our very way of life.

The 1966 movie was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Richard Burton as George, a college history professor, and Elizabeth Taylor as his hard-drinking wife. In boozy bantering with Nick (George Segal), a young biology instructor, George envisions the end of civilization.

“Cultures and races will vanish. The ants will take over the world.”

“Don’t know much about science, do you?” Nick says.

“I know something about history,” George says. “I know when I’m being threatened.”

I had never seriously worried about ants, but Burton was so fabulous in the role that when George said he knew he was being threatened, it opened my eyes. Suddenly I felt threatened, too. I saw that I had been living in a fool’s paradise. I blame the ant farm.

Like every kid on the block in the 1950s, I had a little plastic window filled with sand and ants and spent many hours transfixed by the relentless tunneling, excavating and building by the “world’s tiniest engineers” as they were known. Ants were to be admired, not feared.

That changed after Virginia Woolf. I realized we were being lulled into complacency by the seemingly benign activity in ant farms—in truth, ant prisons. Meanwhile underground, the free ants are busy out-breeding and out-working us—tunneling their way à la The Shawshank Redemption to world dominance.

Feeling antsy, I turned to Joshua King, assistant professor of biology at the University of Central Florida, who has studied ants for 20 years. He offered comforting words—ants are not dirty (like roaches), and they help maintain healthy soil. But he also dropped a fact that raised my threat level to orange.

In 2013, King published a paper documenting the results of a study showing that Florida has “more ants than any place on Earth,” he says. Ants thrive here because “it’s mild, not brutally dry, not flooded, the soil is basically sand.”

In short, we are living in a giant ant farm. Why am I surprised?

For years I have fought a losing battle against ants that loved to excavate sand from the cracks between the patio pavers and feast on our toes. We tried everything from toxic sprays to boiling water. As a last resort we covered the pavers with a swath of indoor-outdoor carpet. Mission accomplished.

Part of me felt bad about essentially burying the ants alive, but King told me to get over it. “You kill more insects driving down the road at night with your lights on than any time in your life. I never feel guilty.”

Science calls ants “social insects” because they live in colonies, have division of labor, and care for their young. But social is not to be confused with sociable, as we understand it.

“To anthropomorphize ants is a mistake,” King says. “It’s a brutal, alien society.”

If you don’t feel threatened, check out the Uncle Milton Giant Ant Farm video on YouTube—“2½ days in 3½ minutes.” Antmaggedon!

“Creepy as hell,” commented one viewer.

In the movie trailer, Rudd’s character, just recruited for the hero’s role, is shown some ants and told, “These are your greatest allies.”

“They’re kinda cute,” he says.

Wrong! Ants are not our greatest allies. They are not coming to save us. They are coming to take over the world, just as George predicted in Virginia Woolf.

“The reality is, they would make a snack of us without a second thought,” King says.

I’m feeling a lot better about our indoor-outdoor carpet. 

Categories: Column