A Brief Encounter with the Hive Mind

Ant HeadSometimes I’m reminded that I don’t always see things the way other people do. It’s human, we’re all different, and in many ways it is a good thing, almost an ideal.  What a terrible fate it would be if we were all the same.

Lockdown has made me very productive in the house, the garden, my leathercrafts, but I’ve also become disconnected from my writing. The wider world is desperately distracting and it seems the part of me that writes is the part that gets most distracted. Meanwhile, the part of me that weeds and plants and grows food is positively encouraged.

I’ve started reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, a book I’ve owned for several years and failed to engage with. This time however I’ve fallen into it[i]. Obviously the book hasn’t changed, it’s me. I’m intrigued, fascinated, and illuminated by VanderMeer’s  wise words, his open-minded approach to creativity and the internal and external worlds it needs. Wonderbook is very energising and it’s helping me regain focus and motivation.

It’s easy to look back at a day and think ‘I’ve achieved nothing worthwhile, I’ve wasted all that time,’ but most things worth doing take longer than a few hours, and down-time is needed. Those ten and twelve hour days are hugely satisfying but I also know I need to plan in those rest days so I can sit and relax, potter about, and let my mind wander. I need to make the time to simply be.

Over the past few days the black garden ants have been swarming. You can see them getting ready a week before they do – the workers enlarge the entrances to the nests (and, presumably the tunnels behind them) so the big flying queens can leave the nest. And they become more alert – a foot-stamp on the ground sends scores of workers flooding defensively from those wider openings.

A few days later you can see a few queens tentatively emerging and then retreating back into the safety of the nest, surrounded and escorted by attentive workers.  It turns out that swarming day is fairly unpredictable here in the UK, but is usually a humid day following rain sometime in July. Whatever the specific triggers, they help colonies coordinate swarming to maximise the chances of the queens meeting drones from other nests.

One reason to write (as if you need a reason) is to try and give shape to what it is you are thinking, and how those things you are experiencing make you feel – even if it’s just for yourself. Even if it’s an apparently little thing like watching ants swarm. Yesterday I sat on a step in the garden path near a nest and watched them. There were far more drones than queens, the queens seemed clumsy and indecisive at first, wandering back and forth then floundering through the air in short, low flights of just a few inches. I wondered if they were warming up their flight muscles.

I noticed other queens climbing up plants to take flight. I let one climb on my finger and held up my arm. The queen ran to the tip of my finger, checked it was as high as it could be, and took off. (Ladybirds do this too.)

Meanwhile our nice neighbour was having a minor panic about the swarms. Coming from another part of the world she’d not seen them before and was worried for her young children.  My partner, Gaie, explained there was nothing to worry about. I said it was one of the grand sights of English nature and she looked at me a little strangely.

Down in the garden dozens then hundreds of queens and drones took flight. It was the only time in their lives they would fly.  Each queen could found a new nest, a new underground city of ants. They would never see the sky again.

The air filled with flying ants climbing into the sky, each seeking a mate from some foreign nest. I watched them rise and wondered if those queens had hopes and fears, if their small minds held dreams for the future. Perhaps they did; the more we find out about insects the more we discover their version of intelligence.  In one shape or form ants have swarmed every year for over 100 million years. I felt very fortunate to be able to see this happen once again. An odd wave of optimism filled me.

[i] I’ve found myself reading a lot of graphic novels recently, I’m clearly being drawn towards visual as much as written narratives, and Wonderbook is very much that, filled with clever, imaginative and colourful illustration.


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