There is a part of my brain that can be best described as a warehouse or, who am I kidding, a dingy attic. Those who've spent time in an attic know, these aren't just objects you find there, but shrivelled, shrunk pieces of life. Or rather what's left of a piece of life when it's dead, like a fossil.
Part of my brain resembles an attic because it is completely full of useless pieces of knowledge. When I was 13 I thought chicks dug that. Now I think they make good nodes. Wrong on both counts. Anyway, one of those things I know is that the ants that ring (and infest in some areas) the city I live in, the city of
angels lights, are wood ants, formicæ rufæ, and yesterday was mating day for them. Not that Paris has an ant situation, but these things are pretty much ubiquitous, and, as with most Western Europe, the ones you see 'round here are mostly wood ants. Or sometimes nutbreaker ants (messores barbari) or the annoying black dwarf ants (iridomyrmeces humilies), which somehow sneaked here from their home in Argentina. And I never had an interest in ants. A bunch of useless knowledge, I tells ya.
Anyway, unlike the sexless worker or warrior ants, the winged females of the wood ants never see the light of day. They are taken care of by servants deep inside ant city, like the princesses they are, all through the various stages of their metamorphosis. That is, until mating day.
Wood ants are tenacious, highly political and dominant insects. They expand and maintain their highly organized empires by creating new colonies. New colonies are created by queens. Princesses must become Queens. And when do princesses become Queens? On mating day. How?
In order to become a Queen, a princess must mate, and with enough males to have a supply of seed that will last her lifetime, because she will have to give birth to all the larva which will build the colony, nurse the other larva and pupa, gather food, battle other ant armies -- and create other colonies. On a favorable summer day, the princesses gather to the top of the colony's firewood roof, under the sun for the first time, spread their wings for the first time, and take flight for the first time. After a head start, the males, also winged but two to three times smaller and darker, lift off on their maiden flight after, well, the maidens.
That's where the fun starts. The princesses have to fly as fast and as far as they can, not just because the colony needs to be far from home, but because only the fastest, fittest males can be allowed to fertilize the females: yes, wood ants practise evolution. The pincesses also need to dodge, among other obstacles, the (in this case European and most likely unladen) swallows who like delicious winged ants. Pretty exciting for a first day out.
And it's only the beginning. A tiny male finally grabs on to the princess and curves its thin abdomen to reach under the princess's and penetrate her. The strength of his orgasmic release typically kills the disposable prince, who is quickly replaced by another. Two or more males may latch onto the gang banged princess and copulate with her at the same time. It sometimes happens that after or during the act a dead male will remain stuck to the exhausted princess, bringing her down. Speed, sex, and death all rolled up in the fall of a lifetime. Oh, to be a female wood ant...
This is what was brought to my attention yesterday when I exited the subway to get home. The first clue was the sidewalk, dotted with tiny splotches, as if it was just starting to rain, and yet... not. The splotches were all about the same size, like a 2€ coin and, even though I never examined them from a close distance the liquid seemed thicker and whiter than water. Then as I was walking up the street I felt quick, tiny touches, which can only be described to someone who had an insect fly into him at full speed, something which doesn't happen every day. After one got stuck in my hair for a little while and another flew by my ear with a sudden buzz which made me behave like an agitated Kramer for a second, I started to notice the earthbound ones, slowly dragging along the pavement with their folded elytras and overstretched abdomens, crawling over puddles of the lymph their fellow insects use as blood. The princesses were becoming Queens.
It's been a good mating day if three or four of the thousands princesses get to start a colony. Once they hit the ground the exhausted animals are the pray of all their predators. They need to find some place to hole up in, and they need to recover. They will lay an egg, and eat it. And a couple more. She will let a few grow into scrawny worker ants with brittle white shells, feed them some of the eggs she eats, send it out to gather food. Once she is healthy enough to breed healthy ants, they will start by killing the scrawny ones, perhaps to remove all trace of the colony's unnatural cannibalistic birth. Then comes the digging of the tunnels, the building of the royal chambers, the nursery, of this astoundlingly efficient complexity that is an ant colony. The Queen will never see the light of day again.
This is what I was thinking about, walking up that street, when I started killing them. Every one I encountered. I still don't know why. Probably because I could. Maybe because I wanted to spice it up for them by making the odds even worse, strengthen them by doing my part in the game of evolution, by squishing these pregnant princesses. I don't know why I did it, with the meticulousness of a child coloring within the lines, extending my foot here, stepping there. I don't feel bad in the least about squashing a bunch of insects, but I still don't know what I did this very infantile thing. Given where I live it's impossible, but part of me hopes a Queen did manage to start a colony.
But most of me thinks these insects would just be annoying.