The wise advice of the ant queen (059)

Choose a quiet time one day to watch the comings and goings of the industrious and useful ants. Some are dragging along pine needles, leaves, others a dead fly. Do you know that an ant can carry 100 times its own weight? Our cities are said to have a lot in common with ant colonies, but have you actually ever seen a more ordered society as theirs? We humans are still learning from ants, as becomes apparent in this old revised legend.

Long long ago there was once a king who was far from happy. He was in a dip – but at that time the word had not been invented. His subjects were in no way dissatisfied with him. Far from it. They admired their ruler for the admirable speeches he held. For how elegantly he waved. Not to mention his very gracious manner when he awarded someone fa medal. But the king wanted more.
The truth of the matter was that it was the king who was dissatisfied with his subjects. He wanted them to be more prosperous, to enable all his subjects to enjoy a better life. And that could only happen if everyone stopped focussing only on their own work. People needed to organize their work better. With greater ‘efficiency’ – another word that hadn’t been invented then either. But how could he achieve this? He consulted his advisers. They agreed with the king that the kingdom was a very chaotic place, but they didn’t have a solution. He consulted his ministers – they didn’t know either. The king fretted over the matter till he was exhausted.
As already mentioned: the king was in a dip and the court physician advised him to take some time off and rest for a while. Upon which the king decided to go for a retreat in a large wood and took up residence in an abandonned hunting lodge. For hours on end he wandered through the silent forest. He observed the grand old trees, felt the wind, smelt the resin in the wood and listened to the bird song. He’d not experienced anything like it for a long long time. But in no time at all his former worries resurfaced.
One day while he was wandering around worrying about this and that, he caught sight of long rows of ants marching across the forest path. He stood still, looked carefully and thought: “They are marching about in such an organized fashion. No ants are bumping into one another: one column is going northwards; another to the south. If my subjects were to approach matters in this way, everyone would be spared a lot of irritation and discord. And that in turn would give them greater prosperity! The king’s curiosity inspired him to follow the ants until he came across a large pile of pine needle which the ants were marching in and out of. He stood watching for a long time and became more and more impressed by these well-organized little creatures.Then he said to the ants: “I am the king of this country and I wish to speak to your leader.” The ants simply kept on marching.
The king was not used to being ignored and he stamped angrily on the ground. An entire army of ants immediately stormed out of the pine needles and attacked the king, stinging him with formic acid. He tried to brush off the ants, but it was hopeless, because they attacked him wave upon wave. Angry and amazed he retreated.
After a while he sat down on a tree trunk to think and decided to try again. He walked back cautiously to the ant hill and asked politely: “Please may I talk to your leader about how he rules?”
A row of soldiars marched outside, halted just before the king. The ant general said: “Our leader is not a male. We have a queen. And she never comes outside.”
The king kneeled down modestly and answered: “I am the king of this land and I would humbly ask your wise queen for the opportunity to consult her about her method of government. I am too large to enter your ant hill. Can you think of a solution?
The soldiers marched back into the nest. The king had never had to wait this long ever, but finally a very large ant was carried outside and he knew at once that this was the queen ant.
The king very carefully picked up the queen, put her on his hand and said: “Thank you, oh queen, for consenting to come outside. I am the king of this country, but it is in a state of chaos. Everyone is only busy with their own affairs. How do you manage to get your people carry out your orders without a murmur?”
The queen ant called out imperiously: “Put me down this instant! I am not used to being talked to in this manner. ” Very carefully the king put the queen ant back down on the ground and lay on his stomach so as to talk to her on the same level.
What they talked about that day was for their ears only. But after this conversation the king returned home, changed his way of ruling the country and very quickly his people began to live in a very orderly, contented and prosperous manner.

Ants are the most common earth insects and have been living already for many millions of years everywhere on the planet except for the North and South Pole. An ant colony begins with one inseminated queen who makes a nest and cares for the first eggs until the young worker ants take the task over. The queen never comes outside after that. She spends her entire life laying eggs which her ant daughters care for, thereby ensuring the growth of the colony. Some nests have several queens. A queen ant can live to be 15 to 25 years; the sterile female ants and the workers or so-called soldier ants about 1 year. Once a year all the male ants fly out of the colonies together with some of the young queens. This often happens on a warm summer’s day after a shower of rain. Several males inseminate the young queens. The smaller males die and the young queen starts a new colony.

The ant has the best sense of smell organ of all animals and it is its most important sensory organ. An ant has two long feeling antennae which continually sweep around to feel, smell and taste everything it comes across. These feeling antennae are often cleaned with special brushes on the front legs. An ant tastes things by brushing food with its feeling antennae. It also communicates with its sense of smell: to check whether another ant is a friend or foe; to mark a route; look for food and to signal danger to others. The smell trail comes out of a gland in its rear that is always moving for that reason. An ant has no lungs. Oxygen enters its body through splits in its rear.
Ants like to be warm and build their nests in places where warmth is retained such as under a warm stone or on the sunny side of a tree. If it’s cold, the entrance to the nest is closed up and the ants stay inside in the winter. To maintain the correct humidity for the eggs and the larvae they drag waterdrops into the dry areas.
A wood ant nest can have a circumference of 3 meters, reach a height of 1,5 meters and be home to several million workers. A colony like this can consume as many as 8 million small insects a year.
Urban architects say they can learn a lot from ant colonies about many things including organization, air currents, temperature control and traffic circulation.

© Els Baars,

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Els Baars