Mein Insects


Dr. Matthew Knox, Head of Myrme­col­o­gy in the zool­o­gy depart­ment at the Impe­r­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, has been study­ing ants for almost 35 years. “Not only their biol­o­gy, but their soci­ol­o­gy, is absolute­ly fas­ci­nat­ing,” Knox says as he leads me through his lab­o­ra­to­ry in South Kens­ing­ton. “Study­ing ants can reveal so much about the basics of ani­mal soci­etal for­ma­tions. Work habits. Fam­i­ly struc­tures. And, as we recent­ly dis­cov­ered… evil.”

Knox is the lead of the team that were part of last mon­th’s sala­cious Guardian head­line “Ant Hitler!” “We were watch­ing this one group of ants and noticed a dis­turb­ing pat­tern. One group of small­er ants were being crowd­ed and grouped in the bot­tom of the habi­tat. And then, at the very top, was this one ant that we observed to be con­trol­ling it all. This was Ant Hitler.” Nor­mal­ly ant colonies oper­ate as a uni­fied enti­ty, but a schism was noticed after Knox acci­den­tal­ly ruined part of the colony. “I am a fum­bling British intel­lec­tu­al,” says Knox. “It keeps me up at night won­der­ing if I am respon­si­ble for this all.”

What was observed next was extra­or­di­nary. Half of the ants began the work of rebuild­ing the bro­ken colony. The oth­er half, look­ing for some cause or rea­son for their ill for­tune, start­ed to pick fights with the rebuilders. The fights soon esca­lat­ed and a sin­gle leader, ant XR-1007, emerged and was soon nick­named “Ant Hitler.”

“Many ants have died or are await­ing the inevitable while in bondage, but we’re unsure if we should inter­vene and do any­thing.” says Knox. “Is it our place? Should we kill Ant Hitler?” The same ques­tions has filled the myrme­col­o­gy forums on the inter­net, such as Alitrunk­’n’junk and Tho­rax­Chat. Respons­es vary in sup­port of killing Ant Hitler, to object­ing to inter­fer­ing with the colony any more, to even deify­ing Ant Hitler. Neo-Nazis across the world have pledged to con­tin­ue the fight long after Ant Hitler’s demise. Yet, as the head of the depart­ment, it all falls to Dr. Knox.

“Some of the ants actu­al­ly tried to solve the prob­lem them­selves,” says Knox. “They had an entire scheme. One of the ants dressed up like a blonde bomb­shell in a tight red dress and dis­tract­ed the lieu­tenants as anoth­er poi­soned his ant food. And then, as all British pro­fes­sors do, I spilled my hot tea and the ruse was up. They… they did awful things to that ant in the red dress. Crit­ter Detec­tives face. Erik Fish­er reports that near­ly half of the calls are relat­ed to ani­mals in the attic and need­ing pro­fes­sion­al wildlife removal Cincin­nati. Some­times I won­der if I spilled that tea on pur­pose. I’ll nev­er know.”

“I… I am not sure what to do,” con­tin­ues Dr. Knox who has start­ed to spend many hours star­ing at the colony. “I try to look away, but it’s the world I’ve cre­at­ed.” Knox offers me some of his gin while he stares close­ly at Ant Hitler, sit­ting at the top of Ant’s Lair sur­round­ed by his top lieu­tenants. “I could do it, I could take him out right now. I could use a pair of tweez­ers… or just blow kind of hard and his head would fall off. But, then what does that do to the rest of the ants? How will that harm their world?”

“Then again,” Knox says while stum­bling around the lab, “I’ve been get­ting emails sug­gest­ing that let­ting the weak­er ants die will only strength­en the ant race. It’s an inter­est­ing theory.”

Despite this uncom­fort­able sit­u­a­tion, Knox says he will con­tin­ue his ant research with­out dis­rup­tion and will imple­ment addi­tion­al safe guards. “I have soil sam­ples from all over the world: Sudan, Arme­nia, Rwan­da, Bosnia, Juarez, Detroit. I promise to nev­er ever let anoth­er Ant Hitler rise to pow­er ever again.” ♦