25 January 2010

Formica on the Formica: A Reflection on My Week of "Myrmecocinalogical" Exploits


Formica is the Latin word for ant. That's where formic acid gets its name, the main ingredient in bee and ant stings. In fact formic acid was originally isolated by grinding up ants. Formica is also the name of the heat resistant plastic laminate made famous on kitchen counters across the country. How fitting then, that my lovely red Formica counter-top, which so endeared me to my apartment in the first place, should now be streaming with its own homonym.



In the 1954 Science Fiction thriller Them! the presence of formic acid in the blood stream of a murder victim is just one of the strange clues left for the local police after a series of unexplainable break-ins. The murderers also left odd symmetrical foot prints and ravaged stores of sugar, leaving the cash register untouched. While most people on Facebook responded to my kvetching with well-wished but impotent suggestions on how to get rid of the ant problem, my eighth grade humanities teacher Glenn came to the rescue with exactly what I really needed: a movie recommendation.

Have you seen THEM -- the early atom-age sci-fi melodrama about giant ants living in the L.A. storm drain system? A must for ant-o-phobes everywhere, but especially delicious for Ant-gelinos.

Thank god it was on Netflix instant watch. Crisis averted, because I'm pretty sure Cedar Street Video wouldn't have it.

Them! is by no means the only ant-themed cinema I've imbibed in the past week. I watched the Nova special Lord of the Ants, and the award winning documentary Ants--Nature's Secret Power, all on top of hours worth of excerpts from nature specials on YouTube. "Know thine enemy" --Sun Tzu

Did you know that ant queens can store sperm in their sperm-pocket for decades before using it to fertilize eggs? Or that ants and human are the only living things on earth that keep domestic animals for their own use? One species herds aphids like cattle, protecting them from weather and leading them to the best food sources so as to harvest the honeydew they produce for food. The picture at the top is of an ant "milking" its colonies aphids. Yeah, ants are crazy. Some ants in the Amazon make giant rafts out of their bodies when it floods in order to protect the more important members of the colony. Such pure altruism, a lot of people call them "super-organisms." The way they make decisions as a colony is so well distributed: ants simply follow the path that has the strongest chemical signal. As more ants go down the path that has the good food and return, that path will have a stronger chemical signal than the others, so they all begin to follow it and soon there is an ant super-highway. It's as if each individual ant were a neuron, and the chemicals they use to communicate were neurotransmitters. I'm in awe.

Too bad these amazing little creatures are going to have to die, when the exterminator arrives tomorrow at nine.


8 comments:

zbuck said...

They're off the counters and on the floor now. I hope they're ready for death by Swiffer wet-jet.

glenn harcourt said...

That's one thing about ants -- the fascist bastards -- they're always "ready for death" in the service of the colony. And there are always more and more and more and more of them standing in line ready to take the places of the fallen. Bumm.Er. Well -- good luck with the water-jet. It that fails, there's always cyanide gas and the ever-trusty flame thrower. "Burn em! Burn em all!" as the shapely Dr. Lady-in-"Distress" says in the egg chamber of the New Mexico nest.

Karina Buck said...

and then there's the short story, Leningen versus the Ants, which left an indelible imjpression when my fourth grade teacher read aloud to us. Scared the sh*t our of me.

Bob Mowry said...

I can only talk about east coast ants. Boric acid is your friend, but you have to find the nest. You can set out some sugar (a teaspoon will do) and then follow them back to the nest. Once you find it you can dust it with boric acid and kill them that way.

You are of course fighting an uphill battle. They've been at this for millions of years. There's a reason why a wise man once said, "consider the ant you sluggard..." :)

Craig Faustus Buck said...

If you kill the ants, who's going to take care of the aphids? Have you lined up foster parents?

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Lucy Tobin's bro, btw, the ant scientist: http://www.jstor.org/pss/25010230

zbuck said...

Chris told me about a MacGyver episode about ants, and it turns out the episode is based on Leningen versus the Ants. The whole episode is available here: http://www.imdb.com/video/cbs/vi2068185113/

zbuck said...

According to myrmecologist Deborah Gordon, a large portion of ants in the Arizona desert remain completely inactive while their comrades tend the nest, the brood, and forage. Thus the author of "consider the ants you sluggard" might have engaged in further research into the true industriousness of ants before jumping to such conclusions.