Originally published October 2, 2007
Above the cement patio in the backyard hang the branches of a crabapple tree.
A deciduous tree of the malus genus, this particular tree flowers in spring. Then the apples develop slowly through summer, never quite ripening to the traditonal standards of orchard apples in either size or taste. I have read that when fully mature the apples produce a tart taste considered unpalatable to most, but usable in jellies and jams by some. To me, these are simply red droppings that crunch beneath my shoes while pacing.
When crushed beneath a shoe a pink liquid squirts from the fruit in varying amounts depending on the size and quality of the particular apple and particular shoe. These are small crab apples. I weigh 185 pounds and often wear sandals in the yard. This combination makes for a colorful pattern on the concrete after 5 minutes or so of pacing/pondering/crabapple crushing. It is appealing to the eye while it lasts. The decimated fruit then shrivels like a red raisin over time, being blown by wind or kicked by feet into the grass and shrubberies where it will presumably work its’ way into the soil as natural food for the balance of the yard. That is when the ants don’t get to the apples first.
It was a startling realization how many ants feast upon my sandal apples. In the span of perhaps 45 minutes today I came to discover a literal army of ants dining upon those crab apples left smashed on the patio during my previous jaunt. These ants are tiny. Brown. Fast. Dim-witted and likely find typical American sitcoms interesting. They also appear to enjoy the crushed crab apples and subsequent juice slightly less than Hemingway enjoyed fishing. There were groups of them. Each batallion laying claim to a few apples in a small area, methodically devouring what I (initially) accidentally provided as sustenance.
The feeding habits fascinate me. Ants are small. Ants are by most accounts simple creatures lacking cognizant thought and high-speed, mass transit systems. Yet somehow these diminutive eating machines managed to travel in large packs, assemble in droves and in a clearly detailed pattern, surround, defend and
eat the apples and juice. There is a hierarchy. Really.
In one particular spot lay the remnants of perhaps 3 small, crushed crab apples,
juice drying on the cement. In response were approx 200 -300 ants, working in teams. There was an outer team of guards and surveillance. I watched as these sentinels confronted ants coming from the distance, re-routing them towards other pastures. These surveillance ants moved in circles around the feeding pit protecting the bounty from invaders at all angles.
Then there was the inner team which trudged through the juice and about the fruit itself, only to every so often wander out to the team of sentinels, meeting head on for a second or two before both went back to their respective duties. The inner team is responsible for bringing food to the outer team. Each team serves a purpose. Both teams are rewarded. I have had supervisors in fortune 1000 companies that could not execute such an arrangement, yet somehow a pack of insects that could be obliterated by a stiff wind had managed to function in this equal opportunity capacity.
The amazing part was that this scene played itself out in numerous circles across the patio containing anywhere from one apple to a dozen.
There are miracles in nature. I don’t assume to say this is one of them, but I found it
quite impressive to say the least.
Suddenly the thought occurred to me that there were thousands upon thousands of ants on the patio. Where did they come from? I have seen in dry weather and in conditions without crushed crab apples an ant or two hither and yon previously. I realize they exist. I realize they live here. What I failed to realize is how god damned many of them there are. Looking down upon them from a distance they appear a living floor, moving in every direction at once in rhythm and chaos all the same.
Equally interesting, the apples that had simply fallen and were yet to be crushed had maybe a handful of ants around them. Once the fruit was smashed and the juice released however the scene was reminiscent of an English soccer match, except with order and sharing.
To experiment I took 3 small intact apples and placed them in an area perhaps 4 feet from any other fruit or ants. I stepped on them. The juice squirted out. It was fun. I went in the house and made myself lunch. I sent a few emails. I pissed. I then returned to the patio perhaps 30 minutes later and found my controlled area overwhelmed by ants. They are like Navy Seals I tell you, lurking in the shadows only to emerge and devour. Yet for all their prowess in consuming
crushed apples they again showed little ability to dismantle the intact versions.
It occurred to me then, I am needed.
The ants need me. I make the apple juice. I am the juice man, nutritionist to the ants.
A comforting thought. Of course……the more food I provide the more ants come, eventually in a large enough scenario threatening my very safety and home should I fail to deliver timely crushed apples. If they can coordinate in small groups this way what is to prevent them from banding together into one large militia targeting larger fruit, larger animals or even the house itself. Then I imagined a google of ants eating through the walls, the wood, the furniture, the television, the garbage, the dirty dishes left in the sink by my insidious and disgusting roommate, perhaps even said roommate would be eaten. This would not be so bad, the rest frightened me though.
Perhaps I should stop crushing the apples and take up a pre-emptive offensive against the ants. yes, I need chemicals and rubber gloves and a broom and a flamethrower. This plague must be eradicated before an ant demigod rises up among their ranks and brainwashes the army into following him on a blood thirsty quest to eat the humans. This aggression can not stand. I must defend the kingdom or die trying!
Then a bird chirped and I was distracted.
What the hell was I talking about?
Hey look, ants.