Ant Stories and Citizen Science possibilities in the garden

An ant eating honeydew. Photo by Dawidi, licensed by creative commons.

For the past five years or so, I’ve been really fascinated by the vicissitudes of childhood memory. The Proustian journeys that take us back to schoolyards and peanut butter sandwiches and parents’ fights so viscerally that sometimes you actually feel your body transforming into some earlier self – a small person – looking up at this strange and big world.

This is intensified for me by the experience of moving back to my hometown. I went for a drive to my primary school last week just for kicks, and it brought back a jumble of memories – walking timidly through wide green corridors, shaky visits to the principals office for minor offences, the schoolbags in the hall that smelt of over ripe bananas. One memory was a little traumatic, and like many memories I have of my childhood, involved contact with nonhuman life (I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, we obviously live immersed in more-than-human worlds).

It was a memory from one of the more difficult times in my life, when I was about 8 or 9, and had been ostracised from a peer group. I was lonely and desperate to fit in, but I was also quite odd! I wore my shoes on the wrong feet, cried quite a bit, looked like a boy – you know, all the good stuff that ensures childhood popularity. Anyway, I was up on this big hill near the edge of the playground, past the monkey bars, and I was squashing ants with gleeful abandon. I’d like to say I was imagining childhood tormentors, but I don’t think I was, I think I was just getting off on killing stuff. A boy who I wanted to befriend, a boy not plagued by playground unpopularity, pulled me up on this saying:

“Stop squashing them! You’re being cruel”… or something to that effect.

I quickly retorted, “I’m only killing the injured ones that I accidentally stepped on, to put them out of their misery.”

This other kid could see straight through my weak façade, and said “That’s a lie, you’re enjoying it, you like killing them.”

And I felt this deep sense of shame, because he was right. I was a sadist, and I loved that I could exert this God-like power over these small and indiscriminate creatures.

You could pathologise this – get all Dr Freud – say that it was symptomatic of some deep violent urge or a reaction to disempowerment, and maybe it was, but I tend to think it was far more simple than that. The ants didn’t really mean much to me. They were plentiful, tiny, and disconnected from my world – I never thought that they had any relationship to anything that mattered. They were at best a minor inconvenience, and at worst, a series of disposable bodies on which I could play out life and death games like “how long does it take a magnifying glass + the sun to make an ant shrivel up?” or “can an ant that’s missing three legs still walk?”

My world was empty of ant stories. I had no narrative lines to weave ants to other lives, and to the places I was living in. The bodies were isolated – and instead of their movement making beautiful patterns of connection, they made a mess, because I didn’t see anything but disjointed little black dots. I didn’t see the intricacies of their antennae, even as I held a magnifying glass to their heads, because the magnifying glass wasn’t there to see with, it was there to burn with. I didn’t see their complex sociality, and I certainly didn’t see their connections to our shared world.

And maybe it’s not just that I lacked ant stories altogether, maybe I had heard ant stories, but they weren’t very good ones. Stories of ant “workers”. Stories of industry. Stories of efficiency. Stories of economy. Stories of armies. Stories of colonisation. Stories of multiplicity without difference. Boring stories. Neoliberal stories.

Martins Gully Primary School students performing ants at NERAM, with Kirsti Abbott, a scientist who works in the Insect Ecology Lab at UNE.

This is why it was such a pleasure to attend the opening of Little Things that Run the World at the New England Regional Art Museum on Saturday afternoon. Having met with UNE entomologist, Nigel Andrew, working with the fabulously named School of Ants Citizen Science Project the day before, I was well primed for some anty explorations – ready to get my ant on! Citizen science is such a fantastic public science engagement, and I am so excited about the possibility of using citizen science in the garden as it develops.

What might community documented changes in what plants flower when, what insects visit, whom interacts with whom, tell us about phenology in a time of climate change? And how will these kinds of engagements link up with other stories, not just scientific tales, but cultural stories of plants, animals and insects, as well as personal and autobiographical stories?

These storied encounters could create a net of stories that, like ants following an ant trail, migrate beyond the garden, trace scented paths into other worlds, forage at the periphery of deeper narratives. It seems to me that citizen science data collection is just as much about supporting scientific studies as it is about storying the world, about making visible rich connectivities that are buried in reductive thinking about nonhuman life. And this could help us respond to the dark times that lay ahead.

At the exhibition at NERAM all kinds of ant stories and ant modes of being proliferated. Out the back were ant hotels for “real” live ants, inside was a giant ant nest designed by artists Jonathon Larsen and Benjamin Thorn. There were electronic ants moving about the place, cardboard ants made by kids, chimerical ants made of light projections, kids in ant costume doing ant performances, ant themed food, and ant infused tea (delicious, trust me!)

Ant hotels behind NERAM
Ant rockmelon!

I got into quite an engaged conversation about insect recipes with an honours student at UNE (who’s name escapes me) working in the insect ecology lab (a place I can see myself repeatedly visiting throughout my postdoc). She’s been making quiche and banana bread with all kinds of insects – a wonderfully sustainable source of protein. So if you come to visit, as I hope so many of you will, we might be able to dine out on ant quiche and grasshopper soup in the garden, as we regale one another with insect tales!

But it’s not only the patterns of connection between ant lives and the world, and ant stories to other ant stories, that excites me so much, but the way that patterns are embedded in the sociality of ants themselves. Deborah M Gordon writes of this in her book Ant Encounters, and the way she describes emergent networks of interaction is fascinating. She writes:

‘In its ordinary meaning, ‘network’ evokes a fairly regular array of connections, like chicken-wire or a honeycomb. But to speak of a network of interactions in an ant colony (or a brain or an immune system) is not to say that the interactions are patterned in any simple or regular way. It is colonies, not ants, that behave in a predictable way. In a particular ant species, colonies perform a standard sequence of tasks each day. Colonies respond to disturbances in much the same way each time. A colony’s behavior transforms in predictable ways as it grows older and larger. One colony’s relations with it’s neighbours look much like another’s. Although there is variation, and noise, there are clearly patterns in the behaviour of an ant colony. 

The patterns or regularities in ant colony behaviour are produced by networks of interaction among ants. The networks of interactions are complicated, irregular, noisy, and dynamic. The network is not a hidden program or set of instructions. There is no program – that is what is mind-boggling, and perhaps why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is so much we do not understand about biology. It is very difficult to imagine how an orchestra could play a symphony without a score. It takes an effort to avoid slipping into thinking that there is an invisible score hidden somewhere.’

And now I am trying to reconcile these emergent networks, with this: 

Anyone got any ideas? 

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