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An ant colony under a fallen gravestone

Jennette Barnes

The other day I was walking through a small private cemetery full of 19th century gravestones when I came upon one for “Ruth Ann, daughter of/ Henry and Ruth Sears, / died November 19, 1836,/ aged 1 year, 8 mo.” It was a small stone, fitting for the small body it commemorated. I must have passed by it several times over the years. But I had never noticed it before, for it was matted down into the turf, flush with the ground, with grass growing up around its edges. I’m not sure what motivated me, but I carefully lifted up one edge of the stone, when I did, I discovered an extensive ant colony that had been constructed on the ground underneath the headstone.

The colony was composed of hundreds of tiny red ants, no more than 3/16” long and an equal number of blue-white larvae the size of rice grains, glistening and curling in the unaccustomed sun. The ants had constructed this nursery below the gravestone who knows how many years ago, creating a broad, shallow, continuous cave with fringed and scalloped edges. But why had the ants chosen this place to store their larvae? Well, for one thing, it would have protected the nursery from rain. Would the warmth of the sun on the stone have hastened incubation? Possibly.

Whatever their motive, the colony was immediately in motion. Each ant grabbed a larva as large as itself in its mandibles, wrestling or carrying it towards one of a half-dozen or so holes to their underground tunnels. It was not so much a planned evacuation as a superb example of dedication and accommodation. Frequently several ants with larval cases would arrive at one of the holes at the same time, yet all got through quickly with a kind of instinctive sense of adjustment that made merging lanes on the Southeast Expressway look mindless by comparison.

Moreover, there was some indication that certain larvae were to be taken down certain holes by certain ants. I occasionally observed an ant carrying a larva less than an inch from a hole, but instead of entering it, the ant scuttled around anxiously with its burden until, apparently finding the “right” hole a half-foot away, it descended into it.

The evacuation proceeded with a remarkable, if seemingly random efficiency, the way town committees sometimes give-and-take their way through to the heart of a problem, where a more logical, systematic approach might fail.

Within five minutes, all of the several hundred larval cases had been safely carried underground, and only a dozen or so ants remained scurrying above, presumably a “mop-up crew” to ensure that none of the larvae had been left behind.

I debated for a while whether I should try to set the headstone upright again in the cemetery or leave it as I had found it. Ruth Ann Sears’ bones were long gone, and the stone was obviously serving as wildlife habitat. So I replaced it as carefully and firmly as I could, intending to do some more research and come back to study it further another day. But as is often the case with my naturalistic wanderings, I have never since visited it again.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.