Sunday, October 26, 2003

The ant has made himself illustrious
Through constant industry industrious.
So what? Would you be calm and placid
If you were full of formic acid?

-- Ogden Nash

For those of you reading at home: No, I haven't missed the fact that Ogden Nash was experiencing some gender confusion when he spoke of male worker ants. Then again, I've seen both Antz and A Bug's Life and am quite accustomed to this sort of misconception from laypeople. I did have an antsy enough Saturday, though, to keep the banner ads focused for the next year or so.

My friend Nick has been obsessed with ants since his childhood. Trained as a chemist, he now works in the lab of my other friend Cathy, a member of the entomology faculty at Michigan State. Nick and Cathy are my two geographically-nearest ant gurus, so my own antennae went up at the chance to go scouting some of Cathy's field sites on what may have been the last almost-warm day before we moved not only from October to November, but also from EDT to EST.

Cathy couldn't make it this weekend, so I left home just after 10 AM, collected Nick in East Lansing at about 11:45, and we drove off to examine Formica exsectoides mounds in Roscommon and Crawford Counties. Yes, this is the same F. exsectoides that bit me repeatedly in Allegan County during July and August. And, y'know, they bite almost as hard in October, although since they're a bit chillier it's more difficult to jump-start the little buggers. There were still plenty of them crawling over the mounds, though. The routine is easy to remember. Find the mound, poke a finger into the debris atop the nest, pluck biting ants from your shoelaces, dislodge even harder-biting ants from your fingers. Yup, that's F. exsectoides all right. With apologies to Robert Duvall, I love the smell of formic acid in the afternoon. It smells like -- ants. We observed them at three different field sites, and also found some other mounds of related species that Nick had happened to notice during a bicycling trip this summer. (Nick can spot an ant mound from a moving bus at 70 mph and not only call the colony to the species level but remember six months later exactly where he found it.)

I also managed to keep Nick entertained during the long trip via my ability to distinguish a U.S. highway from an interstate from an interstate business loop, and to right myself with a tasteful minimum of profanity whenever I made a wrong turn while distracted by a combination of poor signage and the prolonged bug-rap that goes on whenever two antennaheads take a long trip in the same vehicle. (Nick's British driver's license is apparently not valid here; despite his extensive travels, I don't think he's ever driven a car in the U.S.) At the same time, various population-genetics questions were percolating through my head; this is exactly the discussion that Cathy and I are hoping to keep going, even after Nick goes back to England this winter. Nick kept insisting he doesn't know a damned thing about genetics. I kept pointing out that since he at least sort of understands relatedness asymmetry in social Hymenoptera, he knows just about the damnedest thing possible about genetics.

When there are good bugs around, no drive is too long and no day too inconvenient, and even slow service at an alleged fast-food eatery is merely an excuse for more ant-oriented brainstorms, as well as overindulgence in coffee and hamburgers (I did, at least, resist the fries all day.) I dropped Nick off at his place at about 11 PM, and remarked that, including my round trip between Kalamazoo and East Lansing, I'd have driven 600 miles in the course of the day. "Bloody hell," Nick said, "Big place, this America."