Since day one of the COVID-19 lockdown, my home has been the subject of looting. The kitchen must have tested positive for food because the attackers came in droves without much hesitation. First, they sent scouts to investigate the area and check if there were any resources available for plundering. After that, small guerilla units sneaked during the late hours and scavenged whatever they could. In no less than a week, with heightened morale from their successful missions, the looters launched a full-scale invasion.
I call it “Quarantine Safari,” the time when I roam around the house and peek at the lives of the creatures I’m in lockdown with. The cellar spider next to my bed, with his skinny legs and cumin seed-sized belly, hasn’t moved or eaten in weeks. At this point, he had transformed himself into a living scarecrow, keeping away the colony of drain flies inside the bathroom. These flies were paradoxical in that they spawned from the bottom of the sewer and yet carry themselves with a form of aristocratic sophistication. Their flight was slow, elegant, and aimless. They lived in an evergreen spa center and seemed unbothered by the unfolding events.
Unlike the safety of the micro zoo we were sharing, the outside world was in a state of emergency. The birds sang their war songs fighting over territory and mating partners, all the while exterminating millions of insects. A new deadly virus was on the loose, replicating and spreading itself in a narcissistic frenzy that so far took the lives of thousands of people. One species, however, successfully managed to juggle between the isolation pot that was my home and the outside madness.
10, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000.
This is the population of ants currently crawling all over the planet. Looking at this beast of a number, it’s no surprise that a few hundred of them have been taking shifts in plundering my kitchen for food scraps. From spring onion fibers to the rich deposits of bread crumbs scrambled around, the ants were having the feast of their lifetime.
Being as gluttonous as them, I consumed all the media I could bear. While the channels were flipping, news reporters were echoing each other on how people should practice social distancing and stay at least six feet apart. Listening to them, I couldn’t stop thinking about the six-legged creatures sneaking in and out of the house. They seemed like the perfect carriers of the virus. Some poor soul would sneeze out on the street, the rain of droplets would be caught by the small hairs on the ant’s body, and the little beast would serve the virus right on my plate. In a moment of clarity, I remembered that ants are not that stupid and surely they must have a way of avoiding viruses.
With the help of researchers from the University of Texas, it became clear that the ants have been marching on the Earth for over 120 million years. They witnessed the annihilation of the dinosaurs, watched with caution the rise of the Homo sapiens, and most probably feasted on the apple that hit Newton’s head. Unlike other ancient species, such as the crocodiles who spend their days sunbathing with their mouths open, the ant evolved into a hyper-social animal operating in a collectivist community with behavioral norms and a caste system. Much like humans, they have jobs, take care of the young and sick, and have successfully domesticated the environment around them. Some are farmers and tend to crop fields of fungus while others deal with livestock and milk honeydew from their own herds of aphids. They have kinder gardens, storage rooms, central heating, and graveyards. Their colony is a superorganism with no central government that wants to expand, multiply, and keep its economy going.
Ants seem like the perfect hosts for pathogen spread and development: they have constant physical contact and live in warm dark densely populated spaces. According to a 2007 study published in Current Biology, however, social immunity is what keeps the scourge of pathogens at bay. Ants often exhibit great discipline, selflessness, and ingenuity in their fight against parasitic life forms. Doing so, they act out one of the tenets of social immunity – save your neighbor, if you want to save yourself. Their arsenal of immune strategies branches out into three defense tactics: avoidance, control, or elimination of the pathogen.
Labor distribution is a key element in the colony’s immune system. According to their job, workers occupy different levels within the nest and have contact with the ants that are closest to them in the workforce chain. A forger that is at the greatest risk of contracting a pathogen because of his constant exposure to the outside world won’t have contact with nursing workers or the queen.
Of big help to the fight against pathogens is the ant’s ability to detect an infection in its beginning stages. With their built-in chemical test kits, the ants smell and locate any infected members of the colony. Depending on the type of disease it carries, the infected ant can expect its future to play out in several scenarios. Self-isolation is not an uncommon act of altruism, even though at times it can be enforced by guards at the hive’s entrances. Exclusion may be a hard sentence but it’s still a better option than being killed by your own fellows. This form of social distancing mitigates the spread of parasites and protects the core of the colony.
In case of the especially deadly Metarhizium fungus, ants even commit infanticide by executing their infected brood. However, the outcome isn’t always that gruesome as the ants can have control over the fungus and stunt its growth by grooming each other. The practice may seem counteractive because it spreads the disease across the colony, but in the long run, the weak state at which the fungus is kept gives enough time for the ants’ immune system to adapt and fight it off. This form of collective care essentially vaccinates the colony.
No fistfight against a pathogen is complete without a good hygiene routine. Diseased ant corpses are carried to specially designated graveyards and often are left in sunny areas where the UV light destroys the viruses. Contaminated waste within the hive is transported out and disposed of at a level lower than the hive’s entrances so that no rainwater pushes it back. When in range, rivers and streams are perfect dumping grounds as well. Similar to hand sanitizers, the ant species that produce formic acid take advantage of its antimicrobial properties and use it as a sterilizing substance.
The secretion of antimicrobial substances and the collection of materials with similar properties are common phenomena within the animal kingdom. However, according to a 2017 study published in Ecology and Evolution, the deliberate mixture of both remains a trademark that is exclusive to a minority of species, with humans and red ants being credited as the leading pharmacists. This species of ants has adopted a form of advanced pharmaceutical alchemy that is unprecedented: they brew an antibiotic potion out of tree resin and formic acid. After specialized chemist ants enhance the antimicrobial properties of the resin by spraying it with acid, the new drug is distributed inside the hive’s network where it’s used as a sanitizing product.
Knowing that the intruders in my home possess such a sophisticated arsenal of immune defenses, I stopped worrying over their constant contact with the outside world. The ants’ morning marches and honey drinking nights reminded me that life has not stopped just because I get to stare at the ceiling more often. Outside my cocoon, pathogens and hosts are fighting for survival, and among this deadly brawl of gene peacocking, being bored means that I am at the right place and time.
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