Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Red ants never say die

Back in the day, what's now called Gordon Lake over at Iowa Park had no name. What it did have was shrub mesquite, grass burs, yellowjackets, huge red ants and some of the best fishing in this part of the country. To hear my folks tell it at the time, the fishing more than compensated for the stickers, stabbers, scratchers, stingers and little red bastards bent on feasting on five-year-old human flesh.

That first encounter with Pogonomyrmex barbatus, or, red harvester ant, on the banks of Lake Gordon gave me a healthy respect for the breed. From that day forward I always gave a red ant bed a wide berth.

Fast forward some 55 years and the familiar ant beds of yesteryear are few and far between. Widespread application of agricultural and residential pesticides have all but wiped out the red ant and with it the Texas horned lizard.

Last year I was heartened to discover no less than three red ant colonies thriving on the grounds of River Bend Nature Center. Having established ant colonies meant that one day we might be able to have horned lizards, long a dream of mine for the nature center.

Unfortunately, our red ants were living where new parking lots were to be constructed around our new learning center. Anyone who has tried to relocate a colony of ants knows that the project is doomed to failure. Anyone who has tried to forestall "progress" for the sake of an ant has about the same dismal chance for success. I tried the latter and my appeal never even made it as far as the board of directors.

All three ant colonies were buried beneath rebar and concrete. I figured that was that.

Earlier this spring as I was walking across the new parking lot, a scurrying movement at the curb caught my attention. After some fairly decent warm days, the weather had returned to cold and miserable, yet there at my feet a red harvester ant scout snooped along the concrete gutter. I stood motionless for several minutes, scanning the pavement. Only a few were out and about, but there were enough to track them back to their colony in the southeast corner of the lot.

We may not ever get a resident population of horned lizards here at the nature center. But I am proud to report all three ant colonies survived and are thriving today. Maybe that will have to be good enough, I don't know.
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