Reflecting on the fate of those victims of the ant lion larvae that Tim and I watched from outside small glass jars of sugar, I took an avid interest in their small world. I was not alone. Scientists of many stripes have developed a similar fascination.
Among anthropologists, one of the traditional and standard definitions of "man" (versus some "lower order" of species) was the ability to make and/or use tools. But more recently, televisions programs on PBS-TV, including AETN's "Alien Empire," and "Nova: World of the Insects," have presented new information indicating that chimpanzees use simple tools, forcing us to elaborate further on the difference between man and "beast." Complicating the scenario is the recent discovery that the Solitary Wasp uses a tool (a pebble) and "refines" the soil around her home.
Her more evolutionarily advanced sisters, the nesting wasps, thus know how to use tools, but opt for cooperative group efforts instead. They've also developed the ability to navigate by the sun. They make and use paper to build their nests. They communicate with a language of buzzing, humming and dancing. So, without even getting past the wasps, we're already confronting two traits that previously thought exclusive to human beings: the ability to use tools, and the ability to communicate and develop a language.
The more scientists study these and the other insect species, the more they are confronted with human-like attributes and development of "civilizations" pre-dating even that of the ancient Egyptians. Wasps, after all, have been making paper for millions of years. Several species of insects with developed "societies" have respectable technological and social achievements. We recently began to acknowledge these in the names we give to some species, though to list them is to list only some of their accomplishments:
Honeypot Farmer Ants;
and (just plain) Farmer Ants.
There are also Magnetic Termites, an Australian species which builds huge nests taller than a human being, a "skyscraper" as it were. Their cities and skyscrapers always face due north, because they sense the electromagnetic waves of the North Pole.
On top of this, Whitley Strieber, in his book Communion: A True Story (210) tells us that scientists have learned that the earth puts off ELF (extra low frequency) waves each day. We also know there is electrical activity in the human brain, as well as in insect hives. In reviewing what we know about insects, we can reflect also on all this electrical wave activity and ask what it says about our connection to insects. Do we coexist and commune with other, ancient, non-human civilizations here on earth?
Ants, for example, engage in agriculture, using at least three different types of plants in several different ways besides just for food. This includes the use of them as homes. Ants often re-use the same plant for several generations. Groups clear small areas of the forest for these farms and irrigate them on a regular basis. We've learned to appreciate only very recently that all this is done by the ants much more in harmony with Nature than anything man has ever undertaken in agriculture.
Farming ants keep and milk aphid "cattle," even having cattle drives to take their aphids to safety or to new food sources. Army Ants engage in wars, undertaking strategies involving attacks and counter-attacks from one nest to another. Some ants kidnap specialized, round-bottomed ants called Honeypot ants, holding them hostage as "P.O.W.'s." Other species capture slaves. Ants make a liquor from a fluid they get by stroking aphids or kidnaped Honeypot ants. They have classes--warriors, workers and royalty--digging elaborate tunnels and building walls by weaving sticks and leaves together. They make and use shields in combat with larger creatures, such as slugs, manufacturing these by gluing several pieces of twigs and leaves together. They get this glue, depending on the species, by stroking their aphid cattle, P.O.W. Honeypot ants or their own larvae. They manufacture sponges in a similar manner. Within their armies, engineer battalions plan and execute one-piece bridges for fording streams. These engineer battalions also re-design leaves to act as rafts.
We now know that ants use sign language codes to communicate with each other. They've even been noted to "lie" in order to gain admission into an enemy nest as a spy or saboteur in order to get at those Honeypot ants, which are considered precious commodities--the "Helen of Troys" of the ant world. In communicating with Honeypot ant nests about their Honeypot captives, ants have developed a system of description, barter or medium of exchange--almost a type of "money."
Placed in a mixed medium of powdered metal, sand and dirt, ants will proceed to construct their nests out of only one of these materials. If the powdered metal is presented in the right format, ants "refine" the soil in the nest to consist only of the "pure" powdered metal--constructing with metal, as it were.
And that's just the ants. Moving on to other species reveals still other insect achievements. Termites not only build skyscrapers, they also make cardboard. Termite "royalty," like that of the ants, make use of temporary wings. But unlike ants, termite royalty utilize a "ground crew" to help them debark after flight by dragging their wings away. Termites dig lengthy tunnels and, like ants, have armies. But they also have specialized warriors that act exclusively as security guards. These have a "halt who goes there" function, standardized in some species, in yet another development of "language." Intriguingly, too, termites are not close relatives of ants, yet parallel ants in many ways.
Bees make paper, wax, glue, honey and even jelly (called royal jelly). They navigate by the sun and use buzzing, dancing and sign language to communicate with each other. They, too, have royalty, workers and troops. We've recently learned that bees seem to have a group or hive mind with which they make logical deductions. They then plan on the basis of those deductions, projecting those plans for the entire hive into the future. For example, Whitley Strieber, in Communion, tells how human experimenters at Princeton University placed flowers near a beehive, then moved them a consistent five feet further from the hive each day. After a couple of days, the bees would already be there waiting for the experimenters in the new location, having "figured out" where the flowers would be (Strieber 231).
Hornets use their hive mind to make and live in hygienic, solid, wood-like, conical nests. Those nests hold in heat on cold days. Passers by on snowy days in the forest have noted how hornets' nests melt the snow off above and around them.
Although seemingly not as interesting at first as hive-dwellers, non-hive insects nevertheless can also show incredible intelligence. For instance, moths build homes (cocoons) of leaves and twigs held together with glue. They gather water and mix it, carpenter-style, with a fluid they secrete to produce the glue. In the species known as silkworms, moth larvae patiently make silk in a renowned process requiring diligence and a complex memory pattern.
Dragonflies, in the type known as the "ant lion," as larvae, dig elaborate pit traps with which to capture their prey, usually ants, as we've seen. (Hence the name: although a more fitting one, we might reiterate, is "ant dragon."). We now know these larvae "write" to each other and adult ant lions in the sand. They dig "standardized" trails that are instantly recognized by their fellows and any adult ant lion flying over. The adult then knows this is a safe area for her eggs.
Locust hordes or "clouds" are easily recognized and dreaded in many parts of the world. Their cloud mostly includes leaves and stems they devour. But it includes some they retain and toss around repeatedly as an "assist" or boost in flight.
Dry flies' rhythmic "singing" is a standardized system of communication for mating. However, it also does other things, including being a warning siren when there is trouble, since a sudden drop-off in a dry fly's song signals an attack by an enemy.
Fireflies manufacture light and use it to communicate with each other. We now know that all fireflies flash simultaneously and in unison, in some species (Genge 92-4). Do fireflies have a hive mind, too? Some insects have been of demonstrably large dimensions. The original fossil dragonfly, for example, had a wingspan of 4 1/2 feet! Even today, the Goliath beetle can be two and a half feet long.
What electrical activity, we might ask, do insect hive minds engage in as individual hive members communicate with each other? We recall the earth puts off ELF waves. Can these be sensed by and have a bearing on how hive minds function? "Magnetic" termites sense the North Pole's electromagnetic waves, building their cities facing due north. Strieber speculates the ELF waves also affect our own dream patterns, producing hypnopompic hallucinations we experience in the first few seconds after awakening (210-47). Could our dreaming brains' electrical activity interact with the earth's ELF waves while the hive minds of the insects do the same? Do the three sometimes merge, to produce a "visitor" memory on our part, or still other phenomena? We are only beginning to understand some ancient mysteries of the mind.
When the conscious mind tries to recall the material given to it by the subconscious mind, it seems to often remember the information it deals with in the form of images. Is some such image or a composite of images what we remember on awakening sometimes? Do we recall a composite image of the insects that we may interact with in our sleep on an electrical level, via these ELF waves? Are these the "visitors" we hear about today?
If we were to consciously try to construct such a composite image based on all the traits of all the insect types we've described, what would we get? A skyscraper-building, class-conscious, cooperative, organized, agricultural, industrial, hygienic, communicative, exploring, engineering society. Its citizens can be up to four and half feet in size, with flying devices sometimes separate from their innate ability to fly. Living in conical structures, in farms or cities, they have languages, tools, weapons--and lighting to boot!
Today's stories of "visitors" are often interpreted as being some relatively new phenomenon. Yet, as Strieber discusses in Communion, people have apparently been experiencing some phenomenon along the lines of "nightly visitors" for thousands of years, in many cultures (243-7). This was interpreted as mere imagination; more specifically, it was called "fairy lore." But what was a fairy? Perhaps the "leprechaun" of legend was the pygmy. This makes some sense as a real-world explanation. But no really satisfactory explanation for the fairy has ever been produced.
Strieber tells us that the memory of having interacted with fairies or some non-human species is as old as humanity (243-7). Brownies, fairies, sylphs, nymphs, pixies, elves, "elementals" and similar creatures are an ancient part of our memory as a species. In cultures all around the world, they had different names but common traits, often depicted, long before the present-day "visitor" phenomenon, as having many of the traits of an insect, including gossamer wings and antennae. (Today's "visitors" have other insect traits, such as "bug eyes.") They visited in the night, danced, sang and seemed to have a culture that existed, not elsewhere, but right here, on this planet. They were said to come on a moonbeam. Could the moonbeam be the ELF wave? It may be, then, that fairies are an imaginary concoction, all right--but that perhaps there is a little more to it than that. They may be a product of our interaction with the earth and its creatures, the insects. Perhaps such a composite image forms as our sleeping brains' neurons electrically interact with the insect hives via the ELF waves. Perhaps in a state of rest at both ends, electrical activity is changed enough to allow it to be more susceptible to ELF wave interference. Such a consciously-remembered composite image would thus have the traits of both human and insect: the traits, in other words, so often attributed to the fairy and currently being attributed to the "visitors."
Insects have been on the earth for at least 300 million years. They've survived the Age of Fishes,
the Age of Reptiles, the Ages of Dinosaurs and the Ice Age. Perhaps they shall also survive their
current challenging, and perhaps most intelligent enemy, humans. Yet, given their many
achievements, we can finally see that insects, at the hive level, are intelligent, too. In fact, some
scientists think they may have it together better than we do, especially ecologically. Wherever we
go and in whatever endeavor, like those scout bees from the hive studied by Princeton, the insects
are liable to be there, waiting for us.
"Alien Empire," PBS. AETN, Little Rock, April 10, 1997
Genge, N.E., ed. The Unofficial X-Files Companion. New York: Crown, 1995. 92-4
"World of the Insects," Nova. PBS. AETN, Little Rock, July 10, 1997
Strieber, Whitley.Communion: A True Story. New York: Wilson, 1987. 210-47.
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