Dairy Ants

100_2355I remember the long drive from Massachusetts to upper state New York. My father and I were going to visit some close family friends in the upper Champlain Valley. Like my family they were of French-Canadian descent. They were old family friends left over from a time when our family lived in the Adirondacks.

I was fifteen years old and as such I thought I knew a whole lot about the world. I was most interested in the natural world, and I was not afraid to tell anyone who would listen every little fact that I knew about nature. My new found knowledge would grate on my father’s nerves over the span of a six-hour hour drive. Even though I was not known for being tremendously perceptive, even I could see his eyes glaze over after about the first 15 minutes of the drive. It didn’t matter, I easily had another 5 hours and 45 minutes of facts bottled up inside of me that I would tell even the most unwilling listener. It should have been no surprise to me that upon arriving, my father took a long, long walk without telling me where he was going.

Our French-Canadian friends were dairy farmers. I had spent a summer with them when I was 12 years old, so I knew them well. After realizing my father had mysteriously disappeared, I went looking for Romeo Trudeau, my father’s good friend, and Claude, a farmhand who was Romeo’s right-hand man and best friend. It was about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and knowing their farming patterns from the summer that I had stayed with them, I headed right for the barn where I guessed I would find them milking the cows. Sure enough, Romeo and Claude were both in the milking parlor, getting ready for the evening milking.

Romeo was a large man, not particularly tall, but he had a barrel chest and the largest forearms and biceps that I have ever seen. He was about 40 years old at the time and had a grizzled, unshaven gray stubble that covered his face at any time of the day after the noon hour. Claude, on the other hand, was short, very thin, and had black hair and a very wiry frame.

Romeo laughed as I barged into the whitewashed room. “Bill,” he said in a thick French-Canadian accent, “you have grown to be as big as a bull.”

Claude just smiled, a cigarette, as was his custom, hanging out of his mouth, checking me out from head to toe.

Hi, Mr. Trudeau,” I replied, “I knew I’d find you here in the barn.”

Come Bill,” said Romeo as he smiled warmly at me, “you can help us out. You do remember the routine, eh?”

I nodded yes, but, of course, I had no memory of the routine, but it didn’t matter for I was amongst good friends.

Bill, line the first two cows up in the stanchions, side by each,” said Romeo, applying French grammar to the English language.

I did as instructed, and Claude, without saying a word, attached the milking machines to each cow after wiping down the udders .Romeo and Claude worked quietly and efficiently. Two by the two, the cows were led into the milking parlor, milked (not without affection) and the let loose into the barnyard that led to a nearby grazing area.

The quiet silence was just killing me. I had all of this information that I was just dying to share with someone, and I was searching for the right topic when a light bulb went off in my head.

You know, Mr. Trudeau, man isn’t the only animal that tends other animals for his own benefit.” I stated.

You don’t say!” responded Romeo.

That’s right” I replied. “There is a species of black ants that tends aphids, much like you keep cows.” Now that got their attention. Claude looked at Romeo with his bloodshot blue eyes as if to say “This boy is crazy.” But in fact he didn’t say a word. Claude, like many of our family friends, understood English perfectly, but chose to speak mostly in the French language.

Imagine that!” said Romeo as he winked at Claude.

Yep, the ants will herd up the aphids into a section of a branch where the leaves are ripe, green, and plentiful and guard them from other insect predators” I stated in a matter of fact manner.

And why would they do that?” asked Romeo.

You see,” I explained, “aphids turn the carbohydrates in the leaf into a milky sugary substance that the ants use.”

Claude said something in French to Romeo, and they both laughed.

What did Claude say?’ I asked.

He said he would like to see the teeny-weeny milking machines that the ants used to get the aphid milk,” Romeo said, holding back more laughter.

Actually,” I said quite seriously, “the aphids produce the milky sugary substance in their stomach, and the ants remove it from their rectum with their proboscis.”

Romeo’s eyes widened and asked “What’s a proboscis?”

It’s kind of like a nose,” I replied.

They both laughed uncontrollably. I didn’t mind being their entertainment, but, my god, this was serious scientific knowledge.

Claude said something else in French, and they laughed even harder. Claude was now sitting on the floor, laughing so hard he couldn’t stay on his feet.

What did Claude say?” I asked again.

He said, they would be much better off using the teeny-weeny milking machines!” roared Romeo.

Trying to appear somewhat scientific I went on, knowing I was at risk for more ridicule. “The ants actually herd the aphids to different areas once a set of leaves has been completely grazed. They do this by picking up each individual aphid and carrying it to a new set of leaves,” I said.

Romeo and Claude had gained a little control over themselves at this point. And then Claude said something, once again, in French, and they both starting howling again.

What did Claude say this time?” I asked, somewhat indignantly.

Claude says the ants should use teeny-weeny cattle dogs. He thinks the ants can’t be that smart if they carry the aphids from grazing area to grazing area. He wonders what it would be like to carry a cow to the next pasture!” Romeo said, holding back an entire belly-load of laughter.

Ants are very strong,” I replied. “They can carry 100 times their own weight.”

Romeo interjected, “Too bad we couldn’t get those ants to stop chewing down the barn and start moving our cattle.” Romeo and Claude stared at each other, trying to hold back the laughter, but they just couldn’t, and the howling erupted once again. Claude asked something in French, and Romeo translated without me asking. “Claude wants to know what the ants do with the milk,” relayed a smiling Romeo.

They bring it back to their nest where the colony uses it for their survival,” I replied.

Then Claude asked, for the first time in a French-Canadian version of English, holding back his laughter “Do the ants sell the milk to rest of the colony for a teeny-weeny profit?”

No,” I said, “it is a cooperative effort in a highly organized, highly sophisticated society.”

Claude says something in French, and they both begin laughing loudly, once again.

OK, I give up, what did he say this time?” I asked Romeo.

Romeo had tears streaming down his face, his huge arms shaking uncontrollably, and he had to lean against the whitewashed wall to stay upright. “Claude says they must be teeny-weeny communists,” and with that Romeo fell to his hands and knees onto the concrete floor next to Claude. Both seemed to be at death’s door with laughter. The milking parlor must have sounded like a comedy club to anyone listening from the outside world.

Just then, my father walked in, looking a little more relaxed then when we arrived.

You boys look like you’re having fun. What’s so funny?”

Romeo managed to get control of himself, and said “We’re talking about dairy ants, teeny-weeny little communist dairy ants.”

And with this statement I joined them in the hilarity and fell against the wall laughing. My father looked at us long and hard like we were all a bunch of crazy French-Canadian farmers.

Tomorrow,” I said, “I’ll tell you about plants that eat meat.” And the laughter started all over again.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in May of 2007.


  • Emma Springfield

    That is a great story. I do believe that only people with limited language skills can understand a teenager. 

  • http://gardenpath.wordpress.com/ sandy

    Another good story, Bill. Did you ever get to the second lesson, and how was the ride home??  Where were you getting all of this knowledge at the time?

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    Bill, what a fine story.  Reflective of your scientific side.  And, you were able to laugh about it all.  Your father must have been a fine father to have listened, then merely go for a walk.  Funny how those stories stick to a person and then become alive again many years later.  I always love stories like yours, Bill. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Actually my father was incredibly impatient except when it was important, then somehow he developed a sense of calm otherwise absent.  This story was actually a combination of several events that made one interesting story.  I guess that’s why we call them stories.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I was incredibly curious at the time, spent a lot of time figuring stuff out on my own, and read a lot.  There were a lot of problems at home so I got away from them by learning whatever I could about the natural world. But mostly I just explored my surroundings.  That took up much of my time.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I never really thought about that but it makes sense to me.  There really weren’t too many people who even tried to understand me.  I was all over the place emotionally.  But that’s OK.  I ‘m happy with the way I turned out.

  • Barbara

    My good friend – what a wonderful story – I laughed and laughed all the way through… I haven’t read anything that funny in a long long time. Thanks so much for starting my day off with a smile – and by the way I know why your hobblebush berries looked familiar from your previous post – when I walked the dogs last night I recognized them on a vibernum bush that a friend gave me and I planted in my own back yard – I certainly am not as observant as you were when you were a youngster and are even more so now… made me laugh at myself as well as at your story…. again – many thanks…just a perfect way to begin a day and a week.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    GREAT story! I laughed out loud at certain points, and had a smile on my face the whole way through. I’ve loved ant-facts for a while, but I didn’t know about their connection with aphids. That might explain why so many of them were congregated on the ends of two branches that I inspected the other day… 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Barbara I’m really happy that you enjoyed this post.  When first published in the Heath Herald a while back the story received a very good response.  Hobblebush is one of those wild plants that blends in and really doesn’t stand out like you might think it would.  It is fairly common, likes moist but not saturated soils, and can grow where there is a lot of shade.  Have a great week!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    That I made you laugh makes my day.  Laughter is one of nature’s great creations.  I keep thinking we should all strive to do things that make us laugh.

    As you know, there are many different species of ants.  Some have really unique behaviors, more on this in a future post.

  • Teresaevangeline

    I love ants. I found E. O. Wilson’s book on them fascinating. This story was such a fun read. I found it endearing. A sweet peek inside your life as a child. Thank you for this.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Teresa this was a fun story to write.  My life as a child was unbelievably complicated but there were many sweet and wonderful moments. 

  • http://montucky.wordpress.com/ Montucky

    That is a great story Bill, and very well told! I loved being able to sit back and watch the progression of it from both perspectives! It was really funny!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you.  It was fun writing it. 

  • http://alsphotographyblog.blogspot.com/ Al

    That’s very funny, and classic 15YO behavior. Great story, Bill!

  • http://www.WanderingThought.com/ IcyCucky

    Oh Bill, this is a great story, and I love the beginning most. When I was at that age, I made up stories to tell my siblings and was always happy to tell whether they wanted to hear it or not..I like how you manage to fit the ants into what was going on at the time. Very clever!

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    This is a great story, and a great way to tell everyone about the ants and the aphids. I was smiling on the verge of laughter myself as I read this. They have videos on Youtube showing these bugs in action.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Al.  I wasn’t the classic 15YO however.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I’ve always been a story teller.  My grandmother used to fret over the outlandish tales I’d bring home from the woods (Giants sleeping, puddles so big a ship couldn’t navigate them, little people living under elevated roots of an oak tree, and my favorite, a serpent in the swamp that swallowed dogs and children.  I used to get lost in the stories of the stories.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Ratty.  This was my exact intention.  You can tell a faithful reader when they know exactly where you are coming from. 

  • http://www.anniespickns.wordpress.com Annie

    I’m so glad I saved this post for a quiet time when I could absorb the words. You had me laughing out loud. My neighbors (the windows are open) probably think I have lost it (again). I can picture the whole story with this tall, gangly young man trying so hard to impress these work worn men. I’m sure they looked forward to your visits and couldn’t wait for your next round of “nature talks”.  Great story!!!

  • Find an Outlet

    Well I think you were (OK are) an amazing kid and I would have liked you. Without curiosity (and a sense of humor) we are nothing. The best part of this story is that you gave in to the merriment and delight of your two friends in the end, and didn’t take yourself so seriously that you couldn’t have a good laugh! As another commenter remarked, this is a great way to learn about ants and aphids—I had no clue!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Nature has so many interesting wonders I’ll never discover them all.  It seems to be an endless adventure, right?  Thanks so much for reading.  I always look forward to your comments.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Annie that is the best compliment I could ever get.  That you laughed so loud your neighbors might hear you meets every goal I had for this week, or month, for that matter.  Thank you so much!

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