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Ants and Humankind

By Tim Hazell

Ant and human societies manifest social stratification, division of labor, and sophisticated communication networks. Ants seemingly interact in ways that appear intelligent, although their nervous systems are primitive. Specialized physical modifications characterize various castes in an ant colony, whether soldier, forager, or care giver. We have drawn inspiration from their labor and diligence for millennia. Poetry and prose celebrate the little members of the family Formicidae, who are related to wasps and bees. The order evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the Cretaceous period, diversifying with the advent of flowering plants. About half of an estimated total of 22,000 species have been classified.

Ants are valued for their ability to keep harmful insect populations in check. They are used as medicinal ingredients and incorporated into religious rites. Ants thrive in densely populated urban areas, where they invade residential housing and public buildings. Certain imported species, such as the fire ant (solenopsis invicta) have been accidentally introduced into ecosystems where they attack and displace resident insect colonies.

Ants may be one of the rare groups of animals apart from mammals where interactive teaching has been observed. A young, untrained novice will be instructed to locate a freshly discovered cache of food by a more experienced ant through a process known as tandem running. The mentor ant will keep the apprentice on track by speeding up or slowing down as it lags behind or strays too far ahead. Ants lay down pheromone scent trails that become chemical pathways for the entire colony. In species foraging in groups, a scout that finds food marks a trail on the way back to the colony which is then followed by other ants, reinforcing the trail. After the food source has been exhausted, the scent dissipates.

Ants have often been used in fables and children’s stories to represent virtuous collaborative enterprise. The fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper” by Aesop is a universal favorite. Prized in Asian cuisines, ants descriptively figure in the title of the following dish of noodles and ground pork from China.

Ma Yi Shan Shu (Ants Climbing up a Tree)

1/4 lb. Chinese dried bean thread noodles

2 tsp. sesame oil

3 tbsp. oil

4 oz. ground pork

4 cloves garlic, minced

1- 3″ piece ginger, peeled and minced

1-3 tbsp. red chili paste

2 tbsp. light soy sauce (Kikkoman)

3 tsp. Chinese rice wine

1-1/2 cups chicken stock

2 tbsp. dark soy sauce

3 scallions, thinly sliced



Place noodles and 4 cups boiling water in a bowl. Let stand until soft, about 4 minutes. Drain and toss noodles with sesame oil. Heat oil in a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over medium-high heat. Add pork; cook, breaking up meat, until browned, 5–7 minutes. Add garlic and ginger, stirring until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add paste, light soy, wine, and stock. Bring to a boil. Add noodles. Cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced by half. Toss in dark soy and scallions and serve.


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