THE YEAR OF THE ANT by George Ordish


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In the Year or. . . series tradition, Ordish's month-by-month examination of wood ant society focuses on two particular nests and especially--in one-queen Nest A--on Labora, a busy worker who devotes herself to a variety of tasks: feeding and cleaning the queen, tending the eggs, foraging outside the nest, and otherwise lending a hand wherever needed. Often Ordish himself seems to be plugging away with the ants' grim industriousness; at the same time the series convention of centering on one individual, presumably for something like human interest, seems especially artificial in the case of ants, of whom it's often said that the colony functions as the animal and the individuals merely as cells. But as Ordish sensibly remarks, whether you regard the ant or the nest as the animal is unimportant, being only a question of the meaning you attach to the word. And in the same reasonable vein he brings up the frequently noted parallels to human activities--the ants keep and ""milk"" aphid ""cattle,"" they take slaves and make war, their working class can be undermined by addiction to a narcotic secreted by the insidious outsider Xenodusa cava (a beetle)--but reminds us each time of the limitations of the comparison (ants don't herd aphids), the superficiality of the resemblance, and the role of instinct, chemicals, and specific genes in determining the ants' behavior. So too, he says, the ants' particular operations are not, as touted, all that efficient--but then have you ever watched inexperienced movers carry a bureau down a twisting staircase? And getting back to Labora, as Ordish does in a disarming surprise ending, the killing of the original queen by invading robber ants triggers her own ovaries to develop and produce eggs; thus Labors saves the colony from extinction and assumes the throne herself like any worthy fairy-tale heroine.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1978
Publisher: Scribners