The Ant In Winter

February 11, 2011

Milton Levine, inventor of the ant farm, passed away last month. I didn’t realize the ant farm had actually been invented by someone, but it seems obvious that somebody had invented it, just like Anna Thynne invented the aquarium, which is basically an ant farm with water and fish in it. Hearing about Mr. Levine’s passing reminded me of the summer I tried to make a homemade ant farm by putting some honey in the bottom of a mayonnaise jar and setting it out next to an anthill, but, for reasons I still can’t figure out, the ants were never interested enough to actually go in it. Maybe it was the combination of the lingering smell of mayonnaise and honey that turned them off, although we’re talking about creatures that will eat dead rats. So I asked for, and received, an ant farm, a large plastic rectangle filled with white, fine sand, like snow, either for my birthday or for Christmas. Either way it arrived in the middle of winter and came with a postcard that you mailed to the company that made it so they could ship the ants separately. I’ll never forget that the ants’ container came in a plain brown envelope, and when I opened it there was another envelope, and inside that one a note that said, "Live animals. Cannot be shipped to California, Florida, Hawaii, or Tennessee." Why Tennessee was included in this list is another mystery, especially since it’s surrounded by seven other states and I’m pretty sure you’d find carpenter ants in at least one of them.

As I was putting the ants in their farm one escaped. It looked so proud of itself, marching across the table with its head held high. Fortunately for the state of Tennessee I scooped it up with a piece of paper and it joined the others. The instructions that came with the ant farm were simple: feed the ants bread dipped in sugar. To ensure the survival of the colony I was also supposed to dig up an ants’ nest and steal its queen. Apparently ants will revere and care for a queen who is from an entirely different place, which is one way ants are like Canadians or Australians, or other members of the Commonwealth. In fact New Zealand briefly replaced Queen Elizabeth with Ru Paul, but that’s another story. Since it was the middle of winter, though, I couldn’t go out and dig up an ants’ nest. But the ants worked and went about their lives even without a queen, which is one way ants are like the Irish. They built tunnels and egg-shaped chambers with no eggs to fill them. And one by one they died. The dead ants were dismembered by the remaining ones and deposited in an upper corner of the ant farm. After about six weeks there was only one ant left. I like to think it was the one that almost escaped. I don’t know whether it was optimism or determination or simple biology or a low cholesterol diet that kept that ant going longer than the rest. Maybe it knew that spring was coming, that ant nests out in the real world would soon reopen and a queen would come.

Meanwhile it went on with its tasks of repairing tunnels and cleaning rooms. By the time I was ten I’d heard the fable of the grasshopper and the ants at least a hundred times. The lazy grasshopper plays all summer while the ants work, and then, in winter, the grasshopper dies of exposure and starvation. I think even the first time I heard that story I knew how it was going to end, but no matter how many times I heard it I still sided with the grasshopper. His life may have been cut short, but at least he had something to live for other than endless drudgery. There’s more to life than mere survival. All work and no play makes Jack go crazy and take an axe and chase his family through the Overlook Hotel, you know. That’s why I like to think that, while that ant was working away, it was holding out hope for a better future, one in which it would once again be surrounded by other ants. Then, still in winter, the last ant died. The tunnels and rooms collapsed. Spring came and I found ants everywhere. I never did dig up a queen. I’d learned everything I needed from the ant farm.

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