Not even kidding: Tom Junod recounts what it was like to have an ant colony take over his family’s home.
And yet the numbers aren’t the worst part. The worst part is the intelligence of the numbers. A few years ago, I interviewed the great biologist E. O. Wilson right before he and his colleague Bert Hölldobler published their magnum opus, The Superorganism. The book, a study of ant societies, was an exploration of the notion that ants are such organized organisms that they almost don’t count as individual organisms at all but rather as cells of the colony they serve. The colony is the superorganism, and as Wilson told me, “an ant colony is far more intelligent than an ant.” I’ll say. An ant by itself is an inoffensive creature, at worst a crunchy annoyance, smidgeny and obsessively clean and, above all, dumb, with a pindot of a brain. An ant by itself is not going to get any ideas… the problem being that it’s rarely by itself, that it’s representative of something, and that what it represents not only has ideas — it has designs. Wilson’s book proposes that what an ant colony possesses is a kind of accumulated intelligence, the result of individual ants carrying out specialized tasks and giving one another constant feedback about what they find as they do so. Well, once they start accumulating in your house in sufficient numbers, you get a chance to see that accumulated intelligence at work. You get a chance to find out what it wants. And what you find out — what the accumulated intelligence of the colony eventually tells you — is that it wants what you want. You find out that you, an organism, are competing for your house with a superorganism that knows how to do nothing but compete. You are not only competing in the most basic evolutionary sense; you are competing with a purely adaptive intelligence, and so you are competing with the force of evolution itself.
And the worst part about that — the worst part about discovering that the ants in your house are actually emissaries of the enormous teeming brain in your backyard — is that it worsens the other worst parts, of which there are many. For example, I have found ants in my underwear. Lots of them, which I didn’t find until I put the underwear on. As a person who has had ants in his underwear, however, I have to say that what makes their presence particularly irksome is not the momentary discomfort but rather the knowledge of why they’re there. They’re not just passing through, you see, on their way to somewhere else. They’re not in your underwear by accident. They’re nation-building. They’re extending the range of their civilization, and they’re doing it in your drawers.