There is one creature in the victory garden toward which I had yet to feel friendly — or at least neutral. Here they are, en masse, for your viewing pleasure. Or disgust.
Fire ants. Solenopsis invicta.*
I’ve found a way to feel neutral and accepting of flea beetles, grasshoppers, those teeny-tiny yellow bugs I have yet to find a name for, parasitic wasps, caterpillars, larvae that feed upon compost, and even aphids. I feel a genuine fondness for earthworms, ladybugs, bumblebees, honey bees, yellow jackets, green lacewings, and butterflies — even when I know they come from the leaf-eating caterpillars. I can even see a kind of beauty in the Japanese beetles/June bugs when they flash their golden and jade carapaces in the sun. I could stay calm in the face of the few pickleworm larvae that attacked our last few cucumbers — with even a surge of gratitude that they’d waited so late in the season.
I haven’t been tested by whitefly this summer. (Knocking on wood between sentences.) But my brother-in-law’s greenhouse was infested, and I could see where a timely application of predator insects might have helped, and also how difficult it would be to maintain a balanced insect population in an enclosed space in suburbia, where pesticides reign unchallenged in a million green lawns. And I even thought it was kind of cool, how you don’t see them at all, but then ruffle the plants’ leaves, and suddenly the air is full of dancing white specks.
But I confess: I just could not feel friendly to the fire ants.
Maybe it’s because they’re not from around here. The fire ant we Southerners all know and hate is an import. It arrived in North America sometime in the 1920s at an Alabama port, probably a stowaway on a potted plant or a bit of ship’s ballast. It only reached the area of South Carolina where I’m living now in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
But that explanation won’t wash. I love F., and he’s not from around here, either.
It’s a special ant. Not only does it eat okra buds and immature okra pods, which might be reason enough not to like it much, but its sting is like…. well, like fire. In about mid-July, I stepped unwittingly on a fire ant nest buried under the bark that lines my garden paths, and by the time I felt the first sting and looked down, my whole foot was coated in the tiny devils. I threw off my shoe and spent the next five minutes hollering and jumping around in the grass as I brushed furiously at my legs. But it was too late: fire ants crawl up their intended target and wait for a pheromone signal from a particular ant until stinging, so that they all sting in unison.
I ask you, isn’t that just evil?
You never feel them until the first sting — and by then there might be quite a few on you, arching their backs to insert their stingers. Plus, each ant will hold on with her mouth parts and swing her stinger end around in a semi-circle, stinging as many as eight times, continuing even after her venom sac is empty. And that venom contains more toxins than the venom of any other ant on this continent. So one fire ant sting would really be plenty.
I had so many stings that my foot swelled until it was barely recognizable. My ankle disappeared for a few hours. I do not forgive easily for a night spent as Elephant Woman.
When I first created the hills for the crookneck squash in the spring, a fire ant colony stumbled upon them and promptly settled in for the long haul. We tried several methods of getting rid of them, including, but not limited to, enticing them to the edge of the woods with food offerings, disturbing their nest with a stick repeatedly, pouring hot water on them, and shoveling the whole nest into the woods. They usually came back strong within a day. When I shoveled the entire nest into the woods, it took them about 72 hours.
And some of them crawled all the way up the shovel handle to attack my hands.
F. thought he was just helping me to rid the bed of ants during our various maneuvers. I neglected to mention that they were fire ants. I mean it was obvious to me they were fire ants. And I generally don’t find it necessary to point out the obvious.
(Sometimes I do just plain forget he ain’t from around here, y’all. It sounds weird, but honestly, do you think about where your significant other was born or comes from on a regular basis? Probably not. It just becomes background info after a while. Even his adorable, sexy accent barely registers much anymore: that’s just the way F. speaks.)
Anyway, F. was helping me try to clear the fire ants and got stung. He yelped and jumped about a foot into the air and was genuinely alarmed at these “torture ants,” urging me to stay far back, until I’d explained that I knew of their existence and the effect of their stings. Then his face fell into lines of incredulity and horror: “They’re common here?”
Yep. Afraid so. So common I need to have a better attitude toward their ubiquitous presence.
When I saw them on this heirloom okra bud, I felt a familiar zing of indignation and anger. But as I photographed them, I realized that close observation might be the way to dissolve my antipathy. The ever-present Witness, as usual, is the cure for all that ails me. (The Witness is what I call that part of you that follows everything with bright, open-ended attention and doesn’t get sucked into the ego’s ego-trip or tossed about on contrary waves of emotion.)
I liked photographing them, all up and down the stem, as they went on their busy errands. I found myself following the trajectory of a single ant with concentration and even — could it be? — mild interest.
I’d never noticed before how they were all different sizes. How their tail ends were dark, and how perfectly they blended into the red clay at the base of the plant. I had never, until that moment, truly seen how shiny they were. Or how single-minded, as though they’d been hypnotized and programmed by an evil wizard. They never noticed me at all. Given that I never touched or threatened their sacred space, it was as if I did not exist.
Most bugs — don’t freak out when I say this; okay? — most bugs become conscious of me after I lean super close and stare at them a while. Some just slip around to the other side of the leaf. I could play hide-n-seek with this kind of insect all day. It never ceases to amuse me, and sometimes they do get used to me, and we end up having a kind of staring contest. Others flee from me. Some turn and position themselves to see me from a better angle. (I like to think these are the ones I’ve met before — or their offspring, taught to recognize the crazy-but-harmless human.)
But the ants? No. They were way too busy to notice me, even with the flash going off. I began to feel a bit sorry for them. What a life! Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, and for what? Probably destined to die defending the colony by emptying your venom sac on some hapless gardener’s ankle. That heavy venom sac that you’ve been carrying around all these months as you trek up an heirloom okra stem that seems to reach a thousand miles into the sky. Exhausting even to contemplate.
I began to see in the fire ants a kind of metaphor for how I sometimes live my life. Totally unconscious of all but my duty. Miserably plodding a familiar route. Busy to the point of exhaustion. Living as if programmed, not as if I were awake. Carrying a burden of poison with me, when I really just do not need it and it’s weighing me down. And when the ego is threatened? Ready to lash out and hurt someone in the vicinity. Sometimes.
Talk about learning from your enemies….
(How appropriate that today’s color in the R-O-Y-G-B-I-V photo challenge is Red.)
* Or Solenopsis wagneri. Their official nomenclature is in dispute and going up on appeal as we speak. Even their name is stirring up bitter controversy. I’m trying not to take sides. But my ego thinks invicta should win.