Ants

There were four things about New Zealand that upset me when we first arrived in March 1956: the paucity of the butterfly population, the primitive nature of the railway system, the lack of television and the fact that I had to go back to wearing short pants to school. Other than that, the place seemed pretty cool, although that was not a word I would have used back then. ‘Hot’ was the fashionable idiom and more appropriate, too, after England’s tepid summers. I remember our first walk down Queen Street – the hard, bright light of the roadway, the dark shade under the verandas. It all felt strange but I was used to adapting to new places and too young to judge the place. I just took note of the compensations like the huge golden queen peach tree in the back garden of the house were we were staying. I can only remember having eaten one peach before and here they were in such profusion they were rotting on the ground. Then I found my first weta. I had no idea what it was but it impressed me. Any country with fauna like this must have something going for it.

I quickly got used to the short pants and the lack of television. I abandoned my enthusiasm for trainspotting and I swapped my love of butterflies for a comparable interest in ants.

The land at the back of our house was flat and rough, covered in gorse and blackberry, which burned down every summer or so in a spectacular display of dark orange flame and roiling grey smoke, leaving behind a thick layer of apricot coloured ash. Beneath this layer the rocks were riddled with volcanic pipes that opened up here and there into low, dome like caves. Some of these you could crawl into – a dangerous practice I think now because the land belonged to a quarry, which did some blasting from time to time with accompanying jolts like little earthquakes. The roofs of the caves were unstable looking – cracked like crazy paving – and above ground there were concavities were some of them had collapsed.

We didn’t spend much time in the caves, though. They were too cramped. It was more fun wandering around in the open air, looking for wildlife – insects mostly, although there were a lot of skinks, too.

There were several species of ant. Some were big, slow, primitive creatures, maybe 15mm long, that lived in colonies with only a few dozen members but there were also big colonies of red ants with seething populations. These nests were everywhere. Sometimes they were only a few metres apart. It struck me as interesting that I never saw any of them in the house where some species of black ant (formica fusca, I decided they were) was a nuisance, requiring saucers of poison in the pantry cupboards. I decided that the two species couldn’t occupy the same territory – there were ants of the field and ants of the house. This thought (it might have been a rationalisation) encouraged me in an experiment

I had a copy of the classic Victorian text on the hymenoptera, Ants, Bees and Wasps by Sir John Lubbock in which he described a method for keeping ants nests so that they could be observed easily. This involved two sheets of glass separated by thin strips of wood around the edges with a few gaps  to form exits and entrances (rows of matchsticks did the job perfectly). The space between the sheets was filled with damp earth and the whole covered by a sheet of wood or cardboard to keep out the light. This arrangement was then supported by four legs standing in bowls of water, which formed little moats over which the ants couldn’t pass. All you had to do was dig up a nest and put it on top of the wood. As the dirt dried and crumbled the ants were supposed to abandon their old home and tunnel into the space between the sheets of glass to form a new one.

My only problem was where to try this experiment. The only place I could think of was the bottom of my wardrobe.

It all worked perfectly. Within a few days, my colony of several hundred ants and a couple of queens had moved in between the glass plates and built a beautiful set of inter connected chambers, the interiors of which were all clearly visible when I cleaned off the dirt of the old nest and lifted the cardboard cover.

I don’t remember now what I fed them on but they seemed to thrive. The queens laid eggs. The larvae grew. The pupae hatched into new workers. Of course, I forgot to renew the water in the saucers but this didn’t seem to matter. The ants came and went, quite happy with no thought of abandoning their new home. They didn’t infest my bedroom and, more importantly, they didn’t find their way into the kitchen either. After a while I stopped feeding them and they seemed quite capable of fending for themselves, going off into the outside world through some crack in wardrobe wall or floor.

This story ought to finish with my mother opening up my wardrobe and reacting in disgust or horror at what she found. It didn’t turn out that way. I don’t think anyone ever found out the ants were there. I could have shared the secret with my little sister but I don’t think so. I’m not sure I could have trusted her that far. My mother was too busy to care beyond a cursory glance round my room, which was usually pretty tidy. She probably felt my wardrobe was best left unexamined. Goodness knows what I might have had in there. Copies of Playboy or something.

One Response to “Ants”

  1. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    Ah, the genesis of ‘the rage’ – all those years ago collecting fodder for your fiction.

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