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The Ant's Wisdom


Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise.

--Proverbs 6:6

The ant's industry is -- please pardon the pun -- proverbial. In the fable, isn't the ant, as the foil of the sun-giddy grasshopper, the symbol of foresight and prudence?

These warm sunny days are the season for ants. In the garden I notice them crawling, always in a hurry, among ant-sized specks of dirt; and on sidewalks, as I stroll with my dog, I see their mounds -- brown creepy doughnuts -- in the cracks between the concrete slabs.

What brought me to this meditation on ants was in the first place not curiosity about their industry, although I am as curious as the next guy, nor the quest for wisdom, although I have discovered some in the process. It was, simply, the annual spring urge to grow lettuce, Lactuca sative.

Early this spring, in my backyard garden, I planted two rows of lettuce, one black seeded simpson and the other romaine. And though I waited more than the suggested number of days for germination, I didn't see much of the bold green leaves of either. What I did see were lots of ants.

On a lazy afternoon, I watched them passively for a time, but in spite of the Biblical injunction I didn't find much wisdom in it. In fact, since the weather was warm and humid, I turned into quite a sluggard. Checking the encyclopedia entry for ants, however, I did find some wisdom

I don't suppose that when they wrote the book of Proverbs back around 350 B.C. they knew much about entomology. Did they realize that ant society is divided into a rigid caste system? Would they have urged us to go to the ant if they had?

Many types of ants are beneficial to agriculture, laboriously excavating galleries in the soil that let in air and water, as I presume these ants in my garden were doing. But did Biblical folk know about the nomadic ants that settle down only periodically to raise their brood? Much of the time these predatory ants stay on the move, traveling in great swarms, destroying every living thing in their way.

Had they heard of carpenter ants that nest in wood, sometimes invading the timber of buildings, doing extensive damage, similar to termites? Termites eat the wood while the ants burrow through it, but the damage is similar.

Were the authors of Proverbs familiar with the ant species Formica sanquinea that practice a form of slavery called dulosis? The queen enters the nest of another species, kills the rightful queen and is then adopted by the alien workers who rear her offspring which are not their own. Is that the kind of wisdom the Hebrew sages, in their quest for righteousness, would have us learn?

When my lettuce failed to come up on schedule, I made no connection to the ants scurrying in my garden. Like the perennial optimists that gardeners are, I planted again. By then the weather had turned warmer, and I decided to try oak leaf lettuce, which is more heat-resistant.

This second time, after the required wait for germination, I did find three seedlings in my two rows. Again I waited. Yesterday, before the heat of the day turned me again into a sluggard, I checked the rows where the green of young lettuce should be showing.

There were no new plants, but there were ants, plenty of ants. And, as always, they were rushing frenziedly from one place to another. Each one was carrying on its back a lettuce seed that was just about ant size.

?3 Isaac Rehert is a retired Baltimore Sun writer.

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