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On Ants
by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Go to the ant, you sluggard; see her ways and grow wise. Though there is neither officer nor guard nor ruler over her, she prepares her bread in the summer and gathers her food in the harvest time (Proverbs 6:6-7).

Naturalists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were skeptical about the existence of this proverbial model of industriousness. They themselves had witnessed no such ant behavior, and suspected that Solomon, the wise author of Proverbs, was not as wise as he was reputed to be.

In the course of time, however, a virtually Solomonic resolution to the discrepancy was discovered. Up-to-date myrmecology informs us that ants of that description were rare to non-existent in Europe. The ants of Proverbs, however, were probably a species of harvester ants known as Messor barbarus or Messor arenarius, which predominate in the Mediterranean region and were familiar to the ancients.

There are other characteristics of ant behavior that were known to the Jewish sages long before university men began probing ant colonies with their tweezers and stoppered tubes. For example, the Midrash tells of an ant that dropped a grain of wheat: “All the other ants realized from its scent that it was not theirs. No ant took it until the original ant returned and retrieved its wheat.”

In the past 50 years, myrmecologists have confirmed that, sans noses, ants gather most of their information about the environment through scent. The use of odor generated by chemicals called pheromones, which are secreted by special glands located throughout the body, are the primary form of communication among ants (though they also exchange information by body contact and stridulation).

Again from the Midrash: “The sages teach us that an ant lives only six months and needs only a kernel and a half of wheat to sustain itself, yet throughout the summer it is busy gathering whatever it finds, whether it be wheat, barley, or lentils. Why does it do so? Its instinct dictates, ‘Maybe the Holy One, Blessed be He, will decree that I will live longer, and thus I must prepare what I will need for my sustenance [during the winter months].’ ”

Thus, we learn industry from the ant. But what kind of industry? Rabbi Eliezer Ginsburg, in his commentary on Proverbs writes: “Nevertheless, there is an important distinction between the traits found in animals and the corresponding traits in mankind. The former is but instinct, whereas the latter is a rational decision on the part of man to behave in a certain manner. That is why the verse does not instruct the person to go see the ways of an ant, and then do likewise, but rather grow wise, i.e., to learn to apply them wisely. An ant’s diligence in collecting much more than it needs should not be misapplied to amassing material wealth, but rather to amassing spiritual wealth.”

Only today are we beginning to find out just how industrious ants really are. An individual leafcutter ant, for example, can forage along a trail at a velocity (translated into human terms) of a mile in 3 minutes, 45 seconds, about as fleet as the fastest human. It carries a load equivalent to 300 kilograms. The massive leafcutter nest mounds can measure up to 22.7 cubic meters, and weighing 44 tons. Its the Great Wall of China of the ant world.

The division of labor is no less astonishing. The queen leafcutter must breed the correct proportions of warriors, foragers and gardeners, each with the body size and other attributes suitable for their assigned functions (the soldiers are 300 times heavier than the gardeners). Failure to produce just the right number of each caste results in the death of the colony.

In Judaism, we have a saying for such things: How many are Your works, oh G-d! All of them You have made with wisdom!

Sources: Devarim Rabbah 5:2; Edward O. Wilson and Burt Holldobler, Journey to the Ants.

Reprinted with permission from E-geress.



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