Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Leiningen Versus the Ants

Did anyone else ever read that Carl Stephenson short story? I read it quite young (though long after it was published--it dates back to 1938). It made a deep impression on me, although I failed to remember the title, and only found it again years later by asking around.

For those who don't know the story, it's about a determined fellow in the Amazon (the real one, not the dot-com one) who is foolish enough not to flee when the Army Ants come.

We're not dealing with Army Ants here. We're dealing with Argentinian Ants. Smaller. Not as vicious. But relentless.

It's been raining bucketloads here in California. Yeah, yeah, already. England's buried under snowdrifts. Well, bring out the violins. The whole crippled-children-begging-in-the-snow gig is traditional, scenic, and literary. Swell. Here in SoCal, it's swampy, and the ants are coming into our houses by the bazillions.

Argentinian Ants are everywhere these days. Unlike most ants, where one colony fights against another, these tiny little weasels recognize their brothers. Imagine for a moment that the Israelis and Palestinians formed a united front. Oh, sure, it sounds like a good idea at first. But think about it. If they weren't harrying one another, who would they be harassing?

Answer: Somebody else.

Similarly, the Argentinian Ants. They've decided to embrace the brotherhood of Argentinian Antdom, and look where it's left us. They don't have warring "anthills." One colony merges into another, not unlike suburbia in the USA. And it isn't just here. There is supposedly a supercolony of these little bastards that now stretches from somewhere in Spain to somewhere in the Netherlands, which ought to be a bit of a worry to to Dutch, who spent considerable blood and gold throwing off Spanish overlordship a few centuries back.

When I was young, one of the banes of my childhood existence was "Red Ants." These locals were bright orange (red being a misnomer) with ferocious jaws and a mildly venomous bite.

You don't see Red Ants much anymore. Why? As it turns out, they've been overrun by the tiny little Argentinian Ants, who overwhelm them by sheer numbers.

And the common lizard of my childhood, the California Horned Lizard, or "Horny Toad" (not to be confused with the bar of the same name in Bangkok), is now severely endangered in California. At first they blamed urbanization, and that hasn't helped...but what did Horned Lizards eat?

Yep. Red Ants.

Meanwhile, the Argentinians continue their march. They don't fall for the standard poisons or ant traps. Even boric acid doesn't work. New Zealand has been invaded by the little creeps, and has done the best research on the topic, and none of the standard tricks work.

We're about to go on vacation. We're hoping that the house is still here when we return.

There has to be a cure. Bolos? Pampas Grass? Screenings of Evita? Sanctuaries for Nazi leaders?

Maybe if you British types would give back the Falklands, these ants would all move there.

Leiningen had it easy. Those were big fat stupid Army Ants. These are devious, relentless, tiny, innumerable ants.

What kind of a name is "Leiningen" anyway?


Tim Stretton said...

There's a Calvino story on this very thing. The title--"Argentine Ants"--gives it away somewhat.

Britain seems to be safe at the moment: no doubt our navy is keeping them at bay.

Janet Ursel said...

To answer your question: German. ;o)

And hail to the frozen North, where our winters have kept innumerable pests at bay.

Alis said...

Hope you have an ant-free Christmas, David!

Frances Garrood said...

How do you tell an Argentinian ant from an ordinary (British) black ant? Have we already been overrun with these things without even knowing about it?

steves said...

Nice foray into EO Wilson-world by way of Leningen (which was in our YHS lit text back then --what about Green Valley?).

As with all or most problems with some creature or other, a usual solution is to find what eats it. [Though the Brautigan story from Big Sur may seem a cautionary?]

Don't some people have geckos running up the walls for such pest control purposes? Sounds like you may need quite a few very hungry ones there.

Alas the dear bygone Horned Toad: unwilling experimental subject for many a sadistic and budding young scientwist.

How long till some advanced species finds humanity such a nuisance in habitat? one can only wonder... and wait.

Jen said...

Does the story end with Leninghen throwing his radio at the ants, and the feedback forces them to turn back? If so, I think I did read it. If not I'm clueless, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Hi David,
Just saw your Ant blog. The story was in our elementary school reader. But they changed his name to Lexington because German was still unpopular way back then. (Or maybe because we couldn't pronounce Leiningen.)
Jim R

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