When asked what to do about ants in the kitchen, entomologist E. O. Wilson does not respond with a recommendation for the best trap, bait, or spray. Instead, he suggests feeding them and observing their behavior! He calls the ants a "guest superorganism." I had just such a guest earlier this spring, when pavement ants (Tetramorium caespitum) found their way under the edge of the carpet at the entry to my living room. I didn't feed them, but they seemed to be finding sufficient food around the house and were making repeated visits. Could I think of them as a house cleaning service? A study several years ago found that pavement ants were an important factor in removing food waste from New York City sidewalks. Pavement ants are common household insects, particularly in the early spring when they may come inside searching for warmth and sources of food and water. They are immigrants, arriving on the east coast of North America with the influx of Europeans, and have since spread across the continent. Today, they are a paradigmatic Anthropocene species, being well adapted to human disturbed environments. They are generally the most common ant species in cities and towns where they are found.
The presence of the ants reminds me of a documentary movie, Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey, that I saw a few years ago. It is the story of a Buddhist trek for the environment across the Himalayas. There was a scene in the movie in which Buddhist monks, dressed in orange, knelt down on the pavement to blow ants off of the roadway so that they wouldn't be crushed by trekkers or cars. The monks were demonstrating the compassion for other beings called for in Buddhism. In fact, Buddhism has several tenets that are salutary for the environment. Buddhists see all of life as interdependent and interconnected. The Lankavatara Sutra says, "In the long course of rebirth there is not one among living beings with form who has not been mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter, or some other relative. Being connected with the process of taking birth, one is kin to all wild and domestic animals, birds, and beings born from the womb." Some Buddhists suggest that all beings, and perhaps all of nature including the earth itself, have a Buddha nature - meaning that all living things have intrinsic value. Further, the model Buddhist life is one of simplicity and non-acquisitiveness - a beneficial lifestyle for the environment.
My pavement ants have moved back outside as the weather has warmed. They have nested in a crack in the patio concrete, building small sandy mounds on top of the nest. The ants have kept to themselves on the patio, and I try to avoid disturbing their mounds. Life for a pavement ant is not always so harmonious though. I noticed large numbers of pavement ants boiling out onto the sidewalk near Seattle University a few weeks ago. It seems that two nests were engaged in a battle for territory. Pavement ant colonies can grow quite large, with up to as many as 10,000 individuals in a nest. So it's an impressive sight when they emerge in great numbers onto the sidewalk interlocked in combat. Turning from pavement ant strife back to Buddhist respect for these and other living things, I close with a wish for pavement ant flourishing from the prayer of universal loving kindness that ends many Buddhist rituals: "May all beings be free from enmity; may all beings be free from injury; may all beings be free from suffering; may all beings be happy."