The Nuptial Flight of the Ants
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize
My daughters and I are digging in the beds of our yard, planting snapdragons and petunias, the soil winnowing cool and dark through our fingers, sun on our necks. It’s February in Houston, the time here when the air is so clear I want to fill myself with it. Clapping her hands together to shake off the dirt, my baby, Sabine, toddles off beneath the sweetgum tree and begins gathering its spiky balls, the tree’s seeds that fleck the ground. With Mary Martha, I keep digging holes and filling them with annuals, wondering how far into summer’s oppressive heat they’ll last. I’m in a sort of trance of sun and air and earth when I hear Sabine wailing and turn to see her standing helpless, arms out to her sides. I know it’s the fire ants again and I lunge toward her, tearing off her shoes, swiping at stray ants still threading her legs, rolling them between my fingers until they burst.
Ellie, the oldest, had poked her stick into the mound of earth that looks like a pile of sifted brown sugar beneath the sweetgum tree so that she could see the ants roiling up, pouring over the sides of the collapsed wall of their nest. But when they did, they headed for Sabine. Once Sabine’s free of the little pests, I the girls and I stand there together looking down on them. From a distance, the movements of ants have always seemed frantic, chaotic. But squatting over them like this, watching individual ants caress each other’s antennae and then move on, they seem prepared for such destruction, seem already to be putting things in order again. As we watch, another sort of movement reveals itself, one I’ve never noticed before: lodged within the avalanched dirt are small bundles that the ants are gathering up and carrying deeper into the nest—ridged opalescent packets, like swaddled babies—the colony’s pupae.
I go around for days afterward unable to shake this image of ant altruism, though I’m uncertain why this is so. Part of me wants to believe it’s a herald of some sort, but depicted in an iconography that I don’t quite understand. Maybe, I think, if these minute creatures, so far removed from our human complications, are capable of such tenderness towards their young, are willing to endanger their own lives for the good of their progeny, they’re a sign—though not of divinity, necessarily. But at least of something smaller. Goodness, perhaps. I’d settle for that, I suppose.
All that spring, as the snapdragons and petunias straggled toward the sun, I read about ants. With the little ones strapped into their bike trailer and Ellie wavering on her pink Huffy next to me, I’d pedal to the public library and sit cross-legged between the stacks, reading encyclopedia entries and scholarly manuals while the girls looked at picture books and ate crackers. When they grew impatient and began tussling in the aisles or clambering on my bent back, I’d gather what I had found together, check out what I could, and ride home.
In the beginning, I was mainly interested in the fire ants that had colonized my backyard, a species, I learned, called Solenopsis geminata. Their Latin name reminded me of jewels for some reason: colored crystals with light refracting through. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. Fire ants originated in South America, a “tramp species” that radiated outward from there the way archaeologists say our ancestors dispersed from the Great Rift Valley in East Africa millions of years ago. From Olduvai Gorge, the species that became us evolved and spread into the Middle East and Asia and Europe, and finally across the Bering Strait into the New World.
One night, sitting up in bed long after my husband and I had put the girls to sleep, I read in the landmark work, Journey to the Ants, by Edward O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler, that in the early 1500s, fire ants from the mainland of South America began appearing in huge numbers on the island of Hispaniola. Ferocious, the ants nearly caused the abandonment of early Spanish settlements there. Colonists conducted rosarios, religious processions through the dusty streets, in hopes of exorcising the ants. Priests carried large rosaries and images of St. Saturnin, their patron saint. Behind the priests and their icons, musicians followed playing flutes and guitars. At the rear: women, children, the elderly. Perhaps some God did hear their pleas, because the settlements survived and eventually became Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
In more recent times, fire ants have made their way to this continent by forming living rafts of bodies of ants that drifted across the ocean, navigating toward our shores. Inevitably, some workers on the fringe drowned, but the brood and the queen survived in the center of the mass, landed in Florida, and then seeped north and west, across Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana, and finally into Texas, eventually arriving in my backyard. Because they are an invasive species, we have no predators here that can control them. Nothing eats fire ants. If they do, they can die, burned up with poison from within. These are not kind creatures.
I was still wondering, though, about those opalescent packets, those ant babies. My mother had an old set of children’s encyclopedias from the 1920s with tinted photos of exotic peoples and self-assured entries from a time when knowledge must have seemed more finite and manageable. At her house one afternoon, where I’d gone to escape the tedium of another day at home alone with three little children, I sat at her kitchen table and studied the entry on “ants” while she and the girls took a walk to the park. I read about how all the workers in a nest are female, about how a colony can’t survive without its queen to lay the brood, about how the nurses lick the pupae constantly, in what looks like a show of affection. “Actually,” says the writer of the entry, “the nurse workers are greedily eating a sweet liquid that appears on the cocoons.” Sitting at the table reading about the ants with the spring sun slanting in through the pines, I began to fear that on that day my daughters and I had been planting flowers and had watched the ants carrying those swaddled cocoons, instead of being witness to an act of self-sacrifice, we had instead seen only selfishness directed towards getting shared genes into the next generation.
What came back to me then were remnants of Darwin’s theory of natural selection from biology class in college. How did it go? Wasn’t it like this: every species displays variations—in size, in strength, in color—and hundreds of other traits that vary from individual to individual. Many of these traits are passed on from parent to child. Easy enough. But then the part that causes all the fuss: if an individual is better able to survive and attract a mate because of a particular trait, then it will pass that trait on to more offspring than will its rivals, and eventually the whole population of that species will share it. This mechanism that triggers the process of evolution is natural selection, the survival of the fittest.
At any rate, it’s not the survival of an individual about whom nature cares most. (For that matter, nature doesn’t care at all.) Neither is nature selecting for the good of the species. The implication of Darwin’s theory, rather, favors a subtler abstraction—the genetic code. The survival of the species is an almost accidental by-product of the survival of a gene line. So here’s the thing: those fire ants carrying pupae deeper within the ruined nest, or me brushing off the stinging pests from the legs of my daughter, we were all in it together, all doing nothing more than trying to protect our offspring, to get our genetic material, those intricate and twisting strands of ourselves, into the next generation and beyond. As Samuel Butler said, “A hen is only an egg’s way of making another hen.”
I had always implicitly believed in free will. At Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Conroe, Texas, my brother and sister and I went to Sunday school classes where we learned what our faith declared on the subject: that God made Adam in His image, made him capable of falling, knew he would fall (knowing all things), but did not make him fall. That God gave us reason and the freedom to exercise that reason in choosing. That in foreknowing all events, God did not cause them. He made us capable of making our own choices.
So I believed in free will. I thought that of the many alternative futures which seem to lie before us, all may be possible, and that they become impossible only at that moment when we come to a junction and choose. I did not think that the way has been chosen for us. I did not consider that perhaps we might arrive at a point as the result of a million other little actions we think are choices, but are instead the inevitable manifestations of a plan embedded in our genes, which came itself from the genes of our parents and their parents all the way back to the formation of the earth when lightning hit the primordial sea and amino acids linked together into primitive proteins, which led to life and, eventually, to me stooping over a nest of ants beneath the sweetgum tree that drapes our yard with shade.
But it’s been ten years now since the fall of my senior year in college in Kansas, when I became pregnant by a boy, by a man (what were we then?) whom I thought I loved. That summer before, Steve and I would drive out to Clinton Lake, windows rolled down, Van Morrison singing “Cypress Avenue” on a bootlegged tape. We made stir fries and watched Twin Peaks and sat eating ice cream on the porch of the house that had been subdivided into apartments. On Saturday nights, we walked down to the Jazz Club on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence and danced in the dark between tables, our breath sweet with beer. That was the summer I learned to drink coffee and love Miles Davis and fall asleep to someone else’s breathing next to mine in a twin bed.
The day I rode my bike to his house to tell him I was pregnant, the trees were just beginning to turn and the sunlight through their changing leaves made them throb. The sky hung blue and heavy with geese flying south in streams, the wake behind some unseen force pulling through the air. For whatever reason, or for no reason at all, the world was full of beauty, and to me, at that moment, it seemed that I indeed had two choices before me: either to abort the mass of cells dividing even as the branches of the maple swelled with wind, sinuous; or to have the baby the cells would soon connect to become. I assumed that I was deciding which path to follow, that I was in charge. Which is why it’s so difficult to explain to myself how, looking back now on my allowing the pregnancy to continue against the wishes of the boy I thought I loved, it felt less like a choice than merely an urge, the thing that would, inevitably, be done. In some strange way, no will, free or otherwise, seemed to be involved at all.
That was all a long time ago. I was married now to another man, and the mother of a brood that hungered constantly for my attention. And I was studying the ants and wondering about free will and the impulses that guided me in my mothering. Over and over again I’d read the same information, feeling a link to them I couldn’t quite articulate. I think I was trying to find some sort of comfort, a refutation of the evidence that we weren’t all in it for ourselves.
But instead of reassuring me, the ants had me unsettled. They were making me question my say in that act of bearing Ellie all those years ago, and in the selflessness of my interactions with my daughters now, all of which seemed to emanate from the same impulse. What, really, was driving what I had always thought of as self-sacrifice and, yes, love?
Through an inter-library loan program, I checked out a fragile two-volume book by William Morton Wheeler—Ants: Their Structure, Development, and Behavior—written in the early 1900s. Turning the brittle pages, running my fingers over the delicate engraved plates and the diagrams of ants and ant parts—thorax, mandibles, antennae, gaster, sectioned cilia-covered legs—I read that most ant species reproduce like plants. They throw out lots of queens like seeds in the hope that one or two will take root and propagate. In the nest, certain eggs are left unfertilized. These become males. The fertilized eggs the queen lays become females, though not all are destined for the same fate. Some will become workers and nursemaids, others soldiers. A select few, fed more and licked ceaselessly as they move through pupal and larval instars, those stages between successive molts, will develop into the “royal brood,” the only ants designated to form their own colonies.
Ants mate in mid-air in an act that Wheeler called a “nuptial flight.” At the signal of some meteorological condition, often after rain, the males and the callow queens leave the nest in swarms, like swelling clouds, to copulate. In language resembling poetry rather than a scientific treatise, Wheeler describes the mating thus: “When the hour for the nuptial flight draws near, a strange excitement pervades the ranks of the workers . . . . The winged forms move about [the nest] in tremulous indecision, but finally venture forth, run about on the stones or climb about on the grass-blades till they have filled their trachea with a plentiful supply of oxygen. Then they spread their wings and are soon lost to view high in the air.” Afterwards, after they’ve fallen back to earth, the males sometimes cluster together in groups for warmth. They’ll live only a short time longer, maybe a day or two—so short a time they don’t even need to eat. Most of the newly-mated females, too, 99 percent by the estimates of some myrmecologists, soon die, eaten by a bird, drowned in a river, caught in the leaves, overheated, desiccated, burnt up by the sun.
That one in one hundred who does survive, descends to earth, wrenches off her wings by rubbing against grass or pebbles, and, utterly alone and possessing only her reserves of fat and muscle, sets out to create a colony of her own. She digs a small burrow, gradually enlarging it to form a chamber, then closes the opening to the outside world. In her lifetime, she’ll not emerge again. The labor of excavation often wears away her mandibular teeth, rubs off her hair, mars her carapace, the chitinous shell that protects her. This violence to the body marks all motherhood. In cloistered seclusion, she passes days and weeks, sometimes even months, waiting for her eggs to mature within her ovaries. Eventually, she can fertilize and lay these eggs. She nurses the clutch until the eggs hatch into larvae, then feeds the larvae with a salivary secretion. The larvae grow, pupate, and finally hatch as unusually small minim workers who can then begin a life of service to their mother.
One could call that impulse which drives the queen an instinct, or the unseen hand of God.
What I had not considered before the spring I saw the ants gathering their pupae to them was the possibility that all acts are determined by preceding events, or by natural laws; the possibility that free will does not exist. I had always assumed that it was choice which had, for example, thrown me into French class with a guy named John who had blue eyes and invited me to a party where I met his brother Steve who took me to the lake on cloudless summer days and became the father of my child. Now, in the midst of my reading about ants, I began to doubt these assumptions. If the same force—call it natural selection, call it genetics, call it instinct, call it what you will—guides all of life, from the smallest ant to the most complex primate, then how much say did I have in anything, really?
Years ago, was I in French class with a blue-eyed guy named John because a million factors, preordained by the genes that guide us, had led us both to that particular spot from which we would go forth thinking the world lay in possibility before us? Was the only potential end the one in which I became pregnant through his brother and thought I chose to bear the child? And was that even the end? Is there an end? Or are all our actions only nodes along a line that reaches back into a past so vast and forward into a future so distant we cannot see the limit?
Do our genes draw from within us a form of fate? It’s dangerous to think of this in Darwinian terms, because his theory implies that there never was any set objective in all this confusion. The earth is full of beauty and strangeness, yes, but it’s an infinite variety born of accidents. This is no Garden of Eden. We may be the namers, but we fashioned ourselves thus, and we’ve not been given possession of any kingdom. Human beings are not the ultimate and inevitable end. It could have gone any number of ways. And when we’ve departed, it will. Darwin would have accepted the role of chance in his scheme—a drought, perhaps, that ravaged the Galapagos, those windswept islands of volcanic rock where his scheme began to form. That drought could have, say, altered the types of seeds of plants that survived over time so that the beaks of certain finches would have been selected to adapt to these changes, allowing only finches who had adapted to survive and pass on those characteristics. Then, after passing through generations, the beaks of the finches of the Galapagos would have modified. All as a consequence of chance. This is what I want to believe.
I want to believe that evolution—whether of a bird’s beak or of an ant’s mating habits or of my life—does not spool out in pre-ordained directions. I want to believe that on that fall day when the world was full of beauty and I rode my bike to Steve’s house, I had two choices before me, and that both were possible until the moment I chose one, dispensing with the other; not that I was only acting out of some genetic drive to pass on my DNA. I want to believe that the love I ascribed to the fire ants gathering their pupae that day my daughter wreaked destruction on their nest exists, so that the love I think I feel for my children exists as well—not that the ants were only acting in accordance with their genes, with codes embedded in them longer ago than their ancestors I saw once in a museum, who left a nest one morning in search of food, and became trapped in resin seeping from an ancient pine, embalmed in an amber sarcophagi.
Say love doesn’t exist. Say the ants and the birds that eat them and you and I are one. Say we’re only motivated in all that we do by a need to pass on our genes. Still, isn’t there a generosity in these acts of procreation and survival that endures, an element of goodness that dwells in the world of its own accord, regardless of the end toward which it’s tending? Months after my obsession with the ants had begun to fade, I stumbled onto a National Geographic article about honey pot ants who, in desert places all over the world, hang by their tarsal claws to the rough vaulting of the chamber roofs, their golden gasters filled with a sweet honeydew that their sisters will come to drink from during the lean season. These specialized repletes, who allow their bodies to swell and fill, can hold up to eight times their body weight in honey, and are barely able to move because of the load. Maybe this selfless trait has been selected over millennia to insure the survival of the species. Maybe that is all there is to it. But I’m trying to have faith in the possibility that, in this otherwise world, goodness does still, somewhere small, exist. I’m trying to take it as a sign of grace, to praise it.
When she was very young—much sooner than I was ready, anyway—Ellie asked me, “Mommy, where was I before I was born?” How can one trace the origins of things? How does matter come into being? And how depart? Trace it backwards or forwards, before birth, after death, it’s all the same. From this point where I stand on the shifting plates of the earth, there was an ovum within me that became my daughter. I was an ovum within my mother’s ovaries. She within hers. I recede, but some strand of me, some nodule on a strand, existed even then, has come to fruition now, and will soon pass away. Of dust we are, to dust we shall return. But what becomes of the dust that I will someday be, ground down fine? Gather it together in your uncertain hands. Fill your lungs with breath. Blow it. I fly.