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Are Ants More Human Than Us?

Observations on Grief in Ants

I became the proud owner of an Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm as a gift. I sent in my form and awaited my ants. The day they arrived was a happy one. Several had died in transport. This was to be expected as the mail service is not the most gentle of ways to send living creatures. I followed the directions and introduced them to their new home.

They then proceeded to carry the bodies of the deceased to a pile on the side of the farm. The tunnel construction also began and the excess sand was deposited on the garbage or burial mound. As ants died they were taken to this mound. After one week about one quarter of the ants were gone. After two weeks it was half of that. They died quickly and were taken to the mound. Within a few weeks of arrival, all but two had died. They were all buried on the mound. I continued to water and feed according to schedule.

For three months I had a population of two ants. I ran out of space on the food and water schedule card that had come with the farm. I would see them “talking” and “wrestling” as the handbook had described. On occasion they seemed to need their privacy and would retreat to different areas of the farm. I had the tube attached from one side of the farm to the other to give them a run area.

Two very distinct personalities developed. One was very outgoing while the other was more meek and mild. The outgoing one stood and watched while food or water was delivered through the top of the ant farm. The meek one ran around frantically as if the sky were falling, a sense of fear about what was happening even though it happened every day on a schedule. The outgoing one preferred the tube running “above ground” while the meek one liked to sit in the tunnels quietly.

Then one day tragedy struck. The meek one died. She died next to the green plastic barn and there she lay. She was not carted to the burial mound by the outgoing one as the others had been. For three days she lay there while the outgoing one ran around in circles and avoided the body. In that week I saw all stages of grief from denial to anger to acceptance. The remaining ant ran up and down the burial mound. She dug on tunnels that had not been touched for two months. She was consumed with work. It was as if she wished to remain so busy she did not feel her sadness. As if she were denying her friend was gone.

Finally, she went over to the body. She moved the body of her dead comrade but she did not move it to the burial mound with the others. She moved it into the window of the barn. One day she sat there and held the head of her departed friend for several hours. I often worried about the remaining ant. She didn’t seem to eat anything. On the darker side, I worried about cannibalism.

One day I checked and the body was not by the barn nor was it on the mound. I then noticed the living ant pulling the body into the tube. This was in the opposite direction from the burial mound. She sat with it there. She would eat, drink and run up and down the mound as if playing. She seemed better. At times she would sit with her departed friend in the tube but she seemed to have accepted what had happened.

She lived for two weeks alone in the farm before herself passing away. She must not have felt it coming because she died between the barn and the mound. Or perhaps she did and was trying to place herself on the mound. The body of her meek and mild friend remained in the tube.

I saw the intelligence and emotions we humans possess fully evident in these tiny creatures. I am careful to not step on ant trails. I don’t wish to cause them grief.  

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Are Ants More Human Than Us?
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