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So with ants. They move in a mysterious way their wonders to perform. Having taken a special interest in these eusocial insects of the family Formicidae and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong to the order Hymenoptera, I can consider myself something of an authority on the subject.

Getting antsy about ants in the pants

Now we know how hardworking ants are, their extraordinary work ethic and the meticulous order and system they bring to their appointed tasks.

SURESH SUBRAHMANYAN

Funny things, ants. Now you see them, now you don’t. Mostly, your life is blissfully ant free. Yet, if you inadvertently spill a blob of honey or cough syrup, there they are. Swarming in their thousands all over the sweetened drop, scurrying hither and thither. It’s as if a clarion call went out in the ant kingdom, ‘Drop of honey just spotted in the kitchen. Hurry, hurry before it disappears.’ Where do they come from, and where do they go? It is one of life’s eternal mysteries. Honey, I can understand, but cough syrup? Ants in a welter of collective catarrh. What a headline!

Now we know how hardworking ants are, their extraordinary work ethic and the meticulous order and system they bring to their appointed tasks. We’ve read up on how the queen ant calls the shots in her kingdom (queendom?), and if her subjects, the worker ants or soldier ants, including her soul mate, should rile her beyond a point, she wouldn’t think twice about eating him or them whole. You don’t want to mess around with a queen ant. Those of you who have had the dubious pleasure of serving under women bosses, either in a governmental, corporate or domestic environment, will know exactly what I am saying. If I must name names, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Mamata Banerjee, Elizabeth I and that unforgettable femme fatale, Mata Hari are just a few examples who will bear me out.

So with ants. They move in a mysterious way their wonders to perform. Having taken a special interest in these eusocial insects of the family Formicidae and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong to the order Hymenoptera, I can consider myself something of an authority on the subject. Relax, that was Google. The best I can do is to distinguish between black ants, that are generally harmless and primarily interested in crumbs of grub, preferably sweetened and thrown around the floor, and the villainous red ants. Nasty things, red ants. They want all the goodies that their black counterparts fancy, but will not hesitate to bite you in places you never imagined. The expression ‘ants in the pants’ was derived primarily from the surreptitious and deadly attacks by red ants.

During my innocent childhood, I once experienced this very problem. I was taken to watch a Test Match in Chennai. We sat on rough, wooden benches on a warm day in the cheapest stands. Unbeknownst to me an army of red ants, feeding on some toothsome leftovers crawled up my pants, there to feast on body parts I do not care to mention. The agony was so acute I had to be rushed home, whereupon it was discovered that I had not developed a sudden fatal pox but attacked en masse by red ants. I was not rushed to Emergency, but it was a near thing. The family physician had to be called in to apply unguents and balm to heal the affected areas. So my simple advice to you is this. If you see red ants anywhere, get the aerosol spray of Flit or its equivalent and exterminate them.

Show ruth at your own peril.The harmless black ants can be spared. Just clean the place up and they will disappear. I am also reliably informed that black ants form part of Lord Ganesh’s fan club, along with rats, so be kind to them. As to this sly introduction of the divine motif, I am all right with being kind to black ants, but I will definitely draw the line on rats, Lord Ganesh or no Lord Ganesh. God knows we are facing enough problems with heads of cattle roaming our streets unchecked thanks to erratic policy pronouncements, poorly implemented. I am dashed if similar kindnesses on religious grounds are to be extended to the rodent community! We did away with the plague only a few centuries ago.

There are some interesting myths associated with ants. If you happen to accidentally consume a couple of them unknowingly (they could have been stuck in your pineapple pastry), and had pangs of doubt later, fret not. They say ants improve one’s eyesight. I have no medical authentication to support this outlandish theory, but the story goes that tribes in faraway lands, who literally make a meal of ants, can spot an enemy approaching from ten miles away on a rainy day. So there! A sudden appearance of an organized line of soldierly ants can also presage the presence of a dead cockroach or lizard on the premises. All you have to do is follow the ant track and it will unfailingly lead you to some unfortunate creature that has seen better days. This is an excellent service the ants provide, because they sense the lifeless presence long before the dead stench assails your nostrils.

Which finally brings me to reflecting on a puzzling quandary. Why do we pay so little attention to ants? Is it because they are the ‘little people’ of the insect world, and can only draw attention when they are massed together in their hundreds? Do we only choose to notice them when we grandly remove the cover off the chocolate cake and find it encrusted with layers of red ants camouflaged on the icing? In spite of our apparent indifference to them, entomologists classify ants as among the most intelligent, organized and well put-together species. A thousand pities, then, that we have to put up with so many silly ant jokes. ‘Which is the biggest ant in the world? Elephant.’ ‘How many ants are needed to fill an apartment? Tenants.’ ‘What games do ants play with elephants? Squash.’ Then there are all those Pink Panther dead ant jokes. Whoever came up with these putrid ant gags deserves an army of red ants riding up his pants. As for me, if a colony of ants never darkens my door again, it will be too soon.

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