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April 1, 2012 vol 8 no 1

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George Swede

The "Teem" Work of Ants

The mouse-sized cucaracha I swatted with my shoe lies on its back, feet still waving. Almost immediately, a trio of ants approaches. Each is as large as a sentence-ending period. Via unseen signals, dozens more come scurrying from various parts of the patio at the back of our Mexico house. Soon over a hundred tiny ants are teeming around the roach. Despite seeming chaos, the ants lift the roach and begin to carry it across the tiles towards the white wrought-iron doors. I am open-mouthed with admiration. The roach must weigh a thousand times more than an individual ant. Even more amazing is the teamwork by which the transporting task is being done. Actually, it is better described as teem (as in t-e-e-m) work which escapes our understanding, at least without the advantage of a slow-motion camera. One thing does become apparent, however. The ants are somehow taking turns.

hundreds of turn-taking ants
lift the dead cucaracha
unclouded sunrise

The ants carry the cockroach to the wall that holds the sliding patio doors. After some repositioning that involves more milling and swirling, the ants begin to lift the roach up the ten-foot wall. The turn-taking carriers begin to be replaced by completely fresh ants coming single file down the wall from an unseen nest while the tired workers return home ahead of the prize. The ninety-degree ascent occurs smoothly, without stops and starts. In less than ten minutes, la cucaracha disappears into a small opening at the top of the wall that I've never noticed before because it is hidden by the railings for the doors.

into the hidden nest
all the evidence of
the ants' enterprise

The dot-sized ants continue to stream up and down the wall. Apparently, only some get to dine while others continue to hunt for more food. Already another team has found a yellow butterfly. Its body is less than half the size of the roach, but with wings it looks bigger and heavier. Soon the process of carrying a huge trophy straight up for ten feet is repeated.

being lifted to the nest
the dead butterfly seems
to be flying there

These ants epitomize the often expressed, but rarely realized, human ideal of everyone working for the common good. Nevertheless, my respect for them has limits. As I start my daily sweeping inside the house, a number of the tiny utopians are scouting the tiles for something to bring back to their fellows.

With only a slight twinge, I kill them with the bristles. Unlike the ants, this sweeper has definite ideas about what not to share.

in the house
the tiny ants
I admire—
all die
under my broom