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David Holub

Too smart for our own good, humans can learn from ants

Ar 170719867
David Holub/DGO; images via Adobe Stock
Ar 170719867
David Holub/DGO; images via Adobe Stock

When I lived in South Texas, I opened up my grill one day and the bottom was covered in ants. They had walked in a line up the base and in through a lone hole on the back of the grill and were now feeding on the grease caked to the bottom of the pit. Surveying the situation, I figured the only way to get the ants out of the grill would be to turn on the propane, crank the knobs up to 5, and click that ignite button a few times. What was I to do, cancel dinner?

So I light it – whoompf! – and I can see glowing blue and yellow flame through the grates; I can feel the heat starting to rise. I don’t know what I was expecting to happen, but what actually happened was astonishing.

The moment the grill lit, the ants all sprung into coordinated action. They formed one single line and immediately began marching out the lone hole they’d come in. A few stragglers may have died from burns or smoke inhalation, but the vast majority made it out seemingly unscathed.

I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t imagine these ants had ever practiced a fire drill. They did not panic. They did not push; they did not shove. Something in their ant bodies communicated an emergency, followed by a string of pheromones – a chemical link from one to the next – to guide each other to safety.

I thought back to the fire drills we’d do in elementary school, and whenever the fire alarm went off (or even when the power went out), girls began screaming and boys immediately started horsin’ around. But it would be pandemonium, even when the drill was announced well ahead of time. Who knows what would have happened had there ever been actual fires.

But these ants. They’d never prepared, never even knew the concept of what a fire drill was. But with everything on the line – the fate of the colony itself – they had one shot to do it, and they nailed it. So clutch, it was. (Then again, these were fire ants, so ...)

Sometimes I get the sense that humans aren’t terribly smart. Or at least as smart as we’ve led ourselves to believe. I mean, we call ourselves the smartest creatures on the planet – a planet we are currently putting the finishing touches on destroying after 150 years of the unprecedented gobbling of its resources and belching of pollutants into the air. And if that weren’t bad enough, some of us humans have turned protecting the land, air, and water into a political issue, denying reality so that the destructive behavior can continue.

I almost think that we’re the real idiots, so incredibly smart that we kill ourselves and the rest of the planet for good measure.

Perhaps the rest of the animal kingdom is where the wisdom lies.

And then I sit on my back porch and watch the hummingbirds and the two hummingbird feeders we’ve hung out there.

Despite the never-ending supply of nectar, they’re always fighting each other for it. One might get a tiny sip before being chased away. They whir around, harassing each other, tumbling through the air playing a game of hummy grabass. They have to land in the aspen trees to rest before doing the same thing again.

One thing is certain: If they’d just cooperate, if they’d see that by being orderly and selfless, if they simply looked out for their neighbors, they all could live in peace AND drink all the nectar their tiny brains could ever imagine.

So: To be ants or hummingbirds? Seems like an easy decision. But then again, we’re humans.