Thursday, August 11, 2011

Learning from Carpenter Ants

Carpenter Ant Colony in a Bounce House
In honor of my biology professor, Adrian Smith, who has devoted his career to studying ants, I chose to learn a little bit about the carpenter ants which until this morning and without my knowledge had built a small colony in my kid's rolled up bounce house.

I have no idea why a colony of carpenter ants would chose to build a satellite community in a rolled up bit of plastic fabric.  It must have been dark and slightly damp and that must have been enough.  It was a poor choice on her behalf.  After the destruction of their nest, the ants were obviously very erratic and grabbed their rice shaped pupae, or egg sacks, and scattered in the grass.  I watched them for a while, trying to determine if they had any idea where they were going, but they just seemed to be running for cover.  Within minutes, each and every egg sack had been picked up and was being carried by an ant in its pincers and within a few minutes, very few pupae were visible.  Ants in general are very good at concealing themselves to avoid predation, so it is difficult to follow ants in grass and see where they go.

They have a colony structure similar to other ants where a mated queen searches for a new home (my rolled up bouncer) and lays eggs that are both workers and queens.  Unmated queens can produce only males.  Carpenter ants do not actually eat wood.  They can't eat solid food because their esophagus is too long and narrow.  So, they gather aphid honeydew and tree sap and they love human food, which is probably what drew them to the bounce house.  They still damage wood, however, by hollowing it out to create their nests, hence their name.  They also have a symbiotic bacteria that biosynthesizes amino acids and other nutrients and plays some role in its nutrition.

I captured one ant and one egg sack during the scattering and used it to identify the ants as carpenter ants by its bent antennae and the shape of the pupae. The confined ant moves in an interesting way, using its antennae to feel around and its two front legs to try and dig through the plastic container I had placed it in.  The other back four legs are spread out to stabilize its movement.  I did see the ant pick up two of its four back side legs and shake them while upside down with only two side legs to hold it in place - impressive acrobatics.  The confined ant is very protective of the pupae and when it isn't carrying it around, it is resting on top of it protectively.  My research indicated that worker ants are required for the new adults to emerge from the pupae - they can't do it on their own.  And for that reason the mother in me can't let the ant die in captivity.  As much as I'd like to keep an example of this ant, I'm going to have to let it go.  I don't want an ant farm in my house and I can't be responsible for its death.  Amazing creatures - as long as they stay out of my house and it's wood.

More photos here.

Being Present

Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips.  
Have you ever tried to just sit and be still for 25 minutes?  Without thinking about anything in particular?  Or without really moving?  Well, I tried.  And it's hard.  On a recent trip to the Springbrook Prairie Preserve I completed a BPCP iSite where I was to "Sit and Be Here."  Being present is so hard to do, especially for someone so used to multi-tasking.  Sitting still and observing is a form of meditation, and I found it extremely relaxing but also irritating. 

It felt relaxing because I was alone, my children were being cared for by our babysitter, and I had the luxury to just sit down and look at a field of green and yellow prairie flowers.  That experience alone made the time worthwhile.  But the multi-tasker in me wanted to be doing something else at the same time - walking or running so that it would count as my exercise for the day; naming the grasses, birds, and bugs I see and remembering the ones I couldn't name; thinking about what I see and practicing my biomimicry translation skills...  I find it almost impossible to turn off the part of my brain that tells me what I am doing now is not as important as what I should or could be doing.

After "quieting my cleverness," I came away from the experience with a feeling of vitality, both of the prairie and in myself.  The prairie looks like plain grassland to many people, but by sitting down and just observing I know that this place is alive in ways I never imagined.  I saw a black crow perched on top of a grass swaying in the wind.  I heard bugs buzz by my ear and saw butterflies, moths, and dragonflies - and a few mosquitoes.  I heard the grass rustle against each other and I saw critters scatter.  Hundreds of species call that patch of grassland home and by sitting down to observe them, I became a part of that system.  I felt renewed and connected to something much larger than myself.  And it felt great.  I will continue to return to the prairie and other environments and I will practice my skills of sitting and being fully present.  I hope that one day I will be able to accomplish the task.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading the Sky

Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips
How much of fifth grade science can you remember?  What are the different cloud types called?  My knowledge was tested today on the most gorgeous day we've had in months when I was lucky enough to be at the Morton Arboretum with my friend and our kids.  The children's garden was complete chaos with every child in the five surrounding communities all congregating there for the day, so we decided to climb a little hill and sit and watch the clouds.  I have fond memories of staring at the clouds on a pretty day and trying to guess what shape they were making.  My daughter humored me a bit in between trips running up and down the hill and found a snake that the cirrus clouds created (I thought it looked like a spine).  My friend found a stingray made of puffy cumulus clouds.  And I seemed to find mostly fish of different sizes and shapes, a group of cumulus clouds that looked like airplanes flying low, and one space ship.  A psychologist has probably developed a way to analyze what we see in clouds as some type of Warshak test, but I prefer to leave that at the surface.