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honeypot_ant

Like bee hives, ant colonies have all sorts of specialized ants. Soldier ants with mighty mandibles guard the hive. The queen ant becomes a gargantuan reproductive machine and pumps out an endless swarm of underlings. Drone ants develop wings to fly high into the air to mate with fledgling queens. Yet the strangest of all ant jobs (to my mind at least) is held by honeypot ants.

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ants are found in six or seven genera of seasonal ants located in Africa, Australia, Melanesia, and North America. The ants function as living granaries/reservoirs. They find an underground location deep in the hive and use their own bodies as storehouses to protect the hive from drought and famine. As soon as they develop from larvae, the specialized honeypot ants transform into grapelike spheroids capable of ballooning to many time the size of normal ants. During the rainy season, when food is plentiful, worker ants stuff the honeypot ants to the edge of bursting with prey and provender. These living warehouses can store liquids, body fat, and water for long periods in their grotesquely distended abdomens. When the dry season hits and resources become scarce, worker ants stroke the antennae of the honeypot ants and the latter to disgorge their precious stores of liquids and nutrients.

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

Living deep underground, honeypot ants are seldom seen by people. They were first documented in 1881 by Henry Christopher McCook (a civil war chaplain, polymath, and entomological pioneer). Yet hunter gatherers have known of them since time immemorial. The strange grapelike ants are regarded as a unique delicacy to Australia’s indigenous people who have worked the strange bulbous ants into stories of the dreamtime—the ancient magical creation of the world. Of course the world is not finished and the dreamtime is still ongoing and honeypot ants are out there, engorged in the darkness, doing their part. We just never see them.

Sd4AeqY

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

Such an Age of Mechanical Progress!

My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations.  A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.

I honestly couldn't find any photos of vintage machines that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw...

I honestly couldn’t find any photo of a vintage machine that looked as scary as any of the real ones I saw…

On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye.  One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned.  Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie.  It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels.  A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes.  Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet.  I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve?  The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code:  it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Nineteenth Century buckles look kind of sharp too

Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon).  Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium!  Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people.    Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.

I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future.  Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows.  Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear).   But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?

Assuming history isn't cyclical...

Assuming history isn’t cyclical…

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