Formication

Formication, n. The sensation of insects crawling on or under one’s skin. c. 1700, from Latin formica (ant).

Altogether not a pleasant sensation.

I think insects are pretty cool. I am fascinated by the variety of forms life takes (it’s the reason I studied biology) and few, if any, terrestrial life forms are as varied as the insects. There are some 10 quintillion insects on planet Earth (that’s 10 with 18 zeroes following), or 1.5 billion insects for every person.[1] We’ve identified nearly a million species, which accounts for somewhere between 3 and 50% of the total number of species, depending on who you ask. Social insects—ants, bees, wasps, and termites—account for more than half of insect biomass, despite making up only 2% of insect species.[2] Few things are more fascinating than watching an ant colony (remember having an ant farm as a kid? I rest my case.) Insects are beautiful, fascinating, fearsome, entertaining, and survivors.

I hope you’ll agree with me that bugs are pretty awesome.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the sensation of bugs crawling on your skin is not quite so awesome. Watching ants building a new colony is a great way to spend an afternoon. Watching ants build a nest in the middle of my room is somewhat less entertaining. This is what happened yesterday (and by yesterday, I mean two days ago). It’s kind of a funny story.

Because it’s still the off-season, having just passed the vernal equinox, I’ve been staying in guest housing. This is a traditional-style round house with mud walls and thatched roof. Less traditional amenities include tile floors, electricity, and attached bath with definitely non-traditional indoor plumbing. It is beautiful: simple and elegant with few lines and clean curves. I love it. Except for one thing: the ants in the thatching.

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When you think about it, thatching is the perfect environment for any number of small animals. It’s warmed in the chill weather and kept cool in the heat. It’s designed to shed water. It’s virtually never disturbed, secured as it is against wind and storm. A bug could do worse.

So it’s not a big deal when I wake in the mornings to find a few ants skittering across the floor. I imagine they are they are the clumsy members of the colony, falling from the ceiling like that, and feel a certain kinship with them. If I sit in the chairs, I occasionally feel something crawling down the top of my blouse, which I promptly squash (there are few things stranger feeling than insects crawling in one’s bra), but it’s still not a big deal.

Yesterday was a different matter entirely.

I had noticed a lot more ants than usual that morning. It seemed like they were looking for something, rather than just having accidentally fallen. There were too few to concern myself with, and I only mentioned it to the managers ‒ my hosts ‒ since I know we have guests in that room this weekend. I kept an eye on the ants when I ran into my room, but didn’t worry about it.

In the afternoon, I got busy. I didn’t go into the room until dinner was being served a number of hours later, then I ran in to grab something. I promptly forgot whatever I meant to do when I opened my door to find ‒ Oh horror of horrors! ‒ a veritable swarm of ants, a steady stream carrying white crumbs crawling from the doorframe to the center of the room. I walked toward the center, careful to avoid the trail of ants, only to find clustered masses of ants in the chairs, under the edges of the bed, and worst, crawling over my laptop. I realized that the white crumbs were larvae and were being piled in some kind of order along the arms at the chairs. And under the rug. And between the cushions. Everywhere I looked, there were ants, scrambling over each other in a desperate hurry, and crawling up my legs, into my shorts, over my hands if I stood in one place too long.

I stormed from the house with a fiery rage at these tiny invaders, the sensation of tiny legs tingling up my arms and legs. l grabbed a can of insecticide from the storeroom and a broom and dustpan, spelling these tiny insects’ doom.

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Insecticide of choice. Bad pun fully intended.

In an angry rush, l dismantled the chairs, beating the crap (and the ants) out of the cushions and swiping the remaining ants to the floor.

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Study in chairs, deconstructed.

l swept the ants from across the room into a writhing mass of movement in the dustpan. I took the pan filled with the buggers to the doorstep and, in an act of extreme insect violence, massacred them. I sprayed the remaining few with insecticide and closed the windows and doors to fumigate the room.

I returned the can of insecticide to the storeroom, still twitching with the feeling of ants on my body. Granny was manning the front office. She was amused by my endeavors and told me a story:

Years ago, some guest at the Lodge complained about ants in her room. The staff went to look and found a few ants on the floor, of no concern. But the woman was irate. She was insistent: they must do something. Now, the manager happened to have contacts in the biology department at UKZN [University of Kwa-Zulu Natal] so called up a professor of entomology. The manager explained the situation, asking for advice on what to tell the woman. The professor answered “Tell her: She’s in Africa. There are ants.”

Granny turned to me. “Welcome to Africa. We have ants.”

We started laughing. I put away my things and returned to dinner, much calmer, but still brushing imagined ants off my skin.

I’ve not seen the ants since.

Postscript. I’ve since learned that when the ants sense a thunderstorm coming, they carry their larvae to higher ground to protect them from danger of flooding. It seems I was the greater danger this time.

1. Sabrosky, C. W. 1952. How many insects are there? in Insects: The Yearbook of Agriculture. U.S. Dept. of Agr., Washington, D. C. From http://www.si.edu/encyclopedia_si/nmnh/buginfo/bugnos.htm

2. Wilson, E. O. 1990. Success and Dominance in Ecosystems: The Case of the Social Insects. Oldendorf-Luhe, Germany: Ecology Institute. From <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2897122/#b8>

3 thoughts on “Formication

  1. Hilarious! …not that I didn’t empathize!!! When my daughter got her first apt., she walked in to see the walls moving with termites. Fear and loathing were her main reactions. Be brave!

    • Thanks Bella! With any luck, it won’t happen again. The managers have procedures for when the ants/cockroaches/termites get to be too much (not all in my housing, thankfully) that usually involve the local pest control.

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