Tag Archives: Ants

Ants: Part II

So last week I had to get ants off my mind, which now seems a little absurd and entirely self-indulgent but since I promised a Part II, I guess I should follow through. And really this should be the more interesting of the two because not only am I going to include some videos but I’m also hoping to make some more insightful commentary. Granted, said commentary surrounds ants and their behavior, but there are some parallels between the eusocial insects and things here in Bali.

The first has to do with traffic and driving.

Now, I’ve written in these pages about the traffic in Jakarta, and while the traffic in Bali isn’t quite as bad it’s not exactly flowing. Many of the roads are too narrow, the ones that are wide are over-crowded with both cars and motorbikes, and, most relevantly, drivers here have their own ‘style’ of driving.

This ‘style’, for lack of a better term, is both aggressive and passive. It ignores much of the standard rules, like staying within one’s lane and/or waiting for a clear opening to enter a road, and yet it has its own conventions. For example, a high-beam flash that would ‘I’m yielding to you’ in the US, here means the opposite; essentially, ‘Get out of my way.’

But amidst this significant amount of confusion, ignorance of traffic protocol (because despite the actions of drivers here, the written rules of the road are just about the same), and the limited road-space that only becomes more limited with the lack of parking (cars (or buses or) can be parked seemingly anywhere here; on the curb/sidewalk, on streets that should be one-way but aren’t, behind a row of already parked motorbikes… you get the picture), it all works. The point I’m trying to make here is that Indonesian driving; especially the way motorbikes crawl through traffic at stoplights and find spaces unusable for cars ,is a lot like watching ants. The patterns can be hard to visualize or understand but they’re there and there are, maybe not rules, but guidelines. It might look messy and confusing and borderlines dangerous, but there’s a system. I think.

Next, I want to return to a book I cited in Ants: Part I and one that I’ll refer back to again, Bali: Sekala & Niskala, by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr. In Eiseman’s chapter on cremations he writes:

“When the big day is finally picked, an unbelievably complex, interlocking series of preparations is set into motion. And yet, in spite of the thousands of little details that must be attended to, there is no checklist of tasks, no boss who assigns jobs and see that they are carried out. Somehow it all works out, in typical cooperative Balinese fashion.”

Now, I mentioned above that ants are ‘eusocial’, which, according to Wikipedia is the “highest level of organization of animal sociality,” and because of this, ants are able to achieve pretty remarkable things. Here’s where the videos come in:

(Ok so no videos at the moment because of some technical difficulties but here are some snapshots from the vids)

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 4.19.57 PM

Some ants at my house doing some very impressive ant things. I’m pretty sure those are fish bones and they’re trying to carry them up the wall. I came back to the house like three hours later and they were still working on it.Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 4.20.35 PM



So while it’s always dangerous to compare things like a human society, with all its intricacies and conscious thought, with that of a chemically-automated social structure (Maybe? Don’t ants communicate with chemicals? But I guess so do we in a lot of ways, too. Right?), but I’m going to do just that.

Balinese society – especially the way in which everything gets done with no outright or imposing leadership and how everyone knows their task, seemingly without being told – looks a lot like ants to me.

So there you have it; just around 1000 words on Ants and Bali. I’ll be moving away from Formicidae-related topics next week so stay tuned and make sure to check out my podcast with Louis Rive. It’s called The Frying Pan, and this week we’ll be talking about the frustrations of foreign bureaucracies which is a lot more interesting than the bureaucracy itself.

Ants: Part I

I’ve been thinking about ants a lot lately, so I’m going to write a two-part post on them. The likely cause of this – the thinking about ants bit – is that they’re everywhere: the big red ones are on the kitchen counter and ready to spring if I leave any food unattended; the medium-sized black ones are on the floor next to me while I’m doing my morning stretch (it’s a new thing); and the tiny brownish-red and translucent ones are crawling up my forearms and giving stinging little nibbles when I’m writing this very post.

The omni-presence of these little buggers is at first vaguely worrying in the “We should do something about that soon” kind of way. This is especially the case when they’re boring into the walls and furniture and leaving little piles of their refuse/excrement at the entrance to their colony. And if I were in the West, I would probably do something like getting the house fumigated. But instead I find myself in a country where the ant (and probably the termite as well from what I’ve seen) is lived with in seeming tolerance, if not outright harmony.

I have a couple theories about this and both are probably incorrect and/or incomplete, but I’m going to give them to you anyway.

The first idea I came up with is that ants are a part of the Balinese Hindu universe. This struck me when I saw that ants (and birds and rats) all partake in the daily offerings that are left out for God.[i] Whether they’re meant to or not, these offerings – “a kind of self-sacrifice,” according to Fred Eiseman in Sekala-Niskala – provide a little boost to the bottom of the food chain and thus the bottom of the universe. I don’t think this is entirely theologically correct in the current incarnation of Balinese Hinduism, but I would like to believe it was (maybe) an original motivation. The Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita had to come from somewhere, right?

My second running theory is that the Balinese just don’t care about ants and the fact that they’re literally eating their house is inconsequential. This, I think (which I’ve said far too many times in this post), has something to do with the idea that homes are not seen as precious long-term investments (as they are, let’s just say, elsewhere). Fixing shit is easy because building costs, labor, and materials are incredibly inexpensive, so if a roof-beam or whatever is eaten away, just replace it. No harm, no foul.

So ants are pretty much just ignored and left to go about their business, which I might add, can be very impressive and in a lot of interesting ways mirrors Balinese society. But I’ll leave that to Part II.

[i] Here’s where you interject with, “Hey, doesn’t Hinduism have lots of gods?” To which I reply, “Yes, and so does Balinese Hinduism, except that in order to fit within the Pancasila (the five founding creeds of Republic of Indonesia) that requires a ‘belief in one God’, Balinese Hindus performed a feat of theological gymnastics and began using the term that Christian missionaries to Bali had invented in the 1920’s and 30’s, Sang Hyang Widi, as an all-encompassing entity. Now, stop asking questions with complicated answers so I can get back to ants.”