Every Ant in Its Place...Until They're Not.

Why do these tiny little insects make us mighty uncomfortable?

by Laurel Hamers

Dec. 18, 2015—First, there was one. A solitary ant skittering across my kitchen counter. I unceremoniously squashed it with a Kleenex and went to bed.

The next morning, there were seven milling around on the countertop. Again, I wiped them away, but it was only the beginning.

During the next week, they continually appeared. I’d smoosh one and five minutes later, another would have taken its place.

Things got real when I set out poisoned baits. Word of the new food joint got out to the colony, and my kitchen windowsill became the go-to spot for what seemed like every ant in Seabright. They streamed across the ledge and popped out of holes in the walls that I hadn’t even realized were there, drawn by both the sugary baits and the promise of water in my sink. When I stepped outside, I could trace wiggling lines of Argentine ants across the dry pavement from all directions, each one headed straight towards my house. The bait was summoning new ants faster than it could kill them.

I was repulsed by my new housemates – I wanted them gone. But at the same time, I couldn’t look away. Their milling was mesmerizing, these tiny foot soldiers working together as one unit.

I spoke with Jeffrey Lockwood, an entomologist-turned-philosopher at the University of Wyoming, about my conflicted experience. He reassured me that I’m not alone in my feelings.

My feeling of disgust “probably has to do with a sense of invasion or powerlessness,” he said. “One ant could be an accident. A hundred ants is a sign that they’ve taken up house, that you’ve lost control.”

He was right: I felt oddly threatened by the ants. My best efforts to eradicate them were ineffective. Baiting them with poison only brought more. The tiny mob brought an element of uncertainty into my carefully controlled home environment.

Even when they’re outside, though, swarming critters can be startling. Our reaction might be partially driven by shock. Some researchers attribute the prevalence of insect phobias to our infrequent interactions with nature. We’re not used to seeing these critters, so when they do appear, they’re unfamiliar and startling. And when they appear en masse, that effect is amplified.

Inspiring Primal Reactions

There’s something about insects themselves that strikes us as unpredictable and therefore threatening, Lockwood said. They have extra legs. They move in jerky, erratic patterns. Because they’re small, they turn up in places we don’t expect to find them—they take us by surprise.

Outside our homes, he added, “we’re on their turf. And all of a sudden we’re presented with a mass of creatures, this seething mass, and we have no control. I think that can be very unnerving.”

Culturally, insect swarms are represented as an apolocyptic force of destruction – the biblical plague of locusts, for instance. Sometimes that reputation is accurate. A mass of killer bees can sting a human to death. A swarm of locusts, like this recent infestation in Russia, can strip away fields of crops.

They’re horrifying—but then why the fascination?

Perhaps it’s the captivating image of so many creatures moving together as one. A murmuration of starlings moving across the sky looks like a carefully choreographed dance. But, Lockwood said, we treat birds more kindly than insects. They have a “great reputation,” he said. “They’re predictable, they walk on two legs, we feed them outside of our windows.” In other words, they’re easy to love.

Insects are more difficult, and swarms of them are harder still. “We’re both repulsed or terrified by these events, but we’re weirdly drawn to them,” Lockwood said. He referred to that feeling as “the sublime.”

The sublime, he said, is that feeling you get when you try to contemplate the number of stars in the sky or see a particularly powerful wave smashing the coast—awe or joy mixed with horror or discomfort.

Lockwood believes that insect swarms might inspire those same feelings. I like that notion, too. The idea that a bunch of creatures all working together can have a huge, outsized effect is kind of freaky, but also a powerful message for human collaboration.

Over time, I grew more attached to my ants as I studied their collective motion. Their movements grew less alien, more familiar. But slowly, the stream of invaders trickled off, and they disappeared. Were they all dead? Likely not. They’d probably retreated to their nests in my backyard’s moist soil. Or perhaps they had found a new home in someone else’s kitchen, someone else who was now frantically spraying and squishing and baiting. In a weird way, I missed them.

Last night, nearly two months later, I found a solitary ant crawling in my bathroom sink. I let this one live.

Laurel Hamers is a journalist in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz. She holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Williams College. Follow her on Twitter @Arboreal_Laurel.