Ants | Melissa Nunez
Updated: Sep 22
A few ants usually greet me on the counter in the morning as I make my coffee. I don’t keep my house clean enough to not have sugar ants. They are visible on at least one surface of one room at any given time. I mostly leave them be. A conglomeration of these insects will lead me to an abandoned dish or half-eaten snack in an unexpected nook or cranny. Clearing the plastic bowl or desiccated morsel will clear the room of the tiny foragers until the next forgotten bit of food lures them to congregate once more.
Because of these constant cohabitants, I was more than fine with welcoming more ants into the fold by purchasing a farm for my son. It came in the shape of a mountain, with sand and a tube of frozen ants to funnel inside. It had instructions on how to feed them, a booklet of questions and activities to accompany our observation of the miniature colony.
It wasn’t until a week into our study of the insects that I realized there was to be no release. We had already purchased the butterfly kit from the same company, received a cup of caterpillars we watched harden into chrysalides and then emerge transfigured. We added orange slices and sugar water sponges to their domed habitat, watched their flurried flight from stopgap nectar to netting before releasing them into the air outside our front door. With the ladybug kit, we surveilled the roach-like larva, witnessed the transformation into the hemispherical red and black beetles I loved to catch and release as a child, feel their eyelash footsteps along my fingers until they unsheathed their wings and fluttered away.
But these ants came without a queen. They would construct their tunnels and collect their food, but there was nothing else to do. No leader to fertilize or maintain. Nowhere to expand once they hit the clear plastic walls. No other purpose. I investigated my concern and was disappointed to find that releasing them into the yard or along the canal bank by the house would do them no good. They would not survive without a queen and would most likely not be accepted by a foreign colony. They would be marked outsider, remain outcast or be killed. And so, they dug their tunnels and ate their food until they died. Going still, the last body a permanent blockade in burrow without one of its fellows to transport it to the designated funeral chamber.
I am not a stranger to ants as entertainment. When I was a child, my sisters and I would observe them as they traveled to and from their hills. Carrying crumbs of earth or food in their mandibles. I remember the times we encountered leafcutter ants in our yard—ships with large green sails, gliding over the paths their fellow gatherers carved out. We would pick them up by the bit of leaf protruding vertically from their jaws. Watch as their legs continued to try to propel them forward in midair.
One of my friends in elementary school would play with the fire ants on the curb of the sidewalk at after school pick up. She started by coaxing one onto a stick and would pass it from hand to hand. Watch them skitter from stick to stick. Eventually, she dropped the sticks all together and let them scuttle along her fingers and palms. “They tickle,” she said. She convinced me to try it once or twice, despite my mother’s warnings. “They’re going to bite you. That’s what they do.” And one day they did. My friend attempted to harbor in hand three or four at once, but they moved too quickly for her to keep track. They shot off in opposite directions, sinking pincers into the free expanse of skin. She received numerous red welts before finally removing them from her limbs.
My youngest son has been recently afflicted by recurring nightmares involving ants. Not in the way of swarming or attacking, not monstrous or alien in form—giant gnashing jaws poised to devour. They are dead. Their ant hill covered in white powder—nightmares inspired by our daily walks around our block each evening. The exercise and fresh air more important now that we do not leave the house like we used to. An ant hill formed seemingly overnight at the base of the curb, right where cement becomes asphalt, in front of a neighbors’ house. We know to give a wide berth to the area. The stream of fire ants funneling in and out of their nest extends several feet in front and behind. Experience and warning both have taught my children that to stand still, even to walk slowly near these insects means to be mounted and bitten. You avoid when possible and move quickly when caught by surprise.
“What’s that white stuff?” my son asks me one day.
“The neighbors must have decided to put poison,” I tell him.
“Where are the ants?”
“They are dead.”
“Because of the poison.”
I have taught my children that we do our best to do no harm, leave no trace. When we are out in nature, we leave things be. We don’t step on ants or other bugs. We don’t trample flowers or plants. But we do protect our territory, our homes. Outside in nature is their house, we don’t mess with their house. Just like we don’t want them messing with ours.
“But the ant hill is on the road,” my son tells me. “That’s not their house.”
“It is close,” I say. I want to explain, help him understand, but come up short.
He wakes up every night for a week after this conversation. Moaning and mumbling in his half-conscious state.
“Who is dead, baby?” I am concerned our lack of visits with family is manifesting as loss—a grandparent, a family friend.
“The white powder,” he tells me. “They’re all dead.”
Ants all I can think about now as I try to comfort him back to sleep.
Melissa Nunez lives and writes in the caffeinated spaces between awake and dreaming. She makes her home in the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas, where she enjoys observing and exploring the local flora and fauna with her three home-schooled children. Her essays have been featured in FOLIO, Yellow Arrow Journal, and others. Her poetry has appeared in Susurrus and Alebrijes Review.