Nerd Factor: A Natural Lesson in Terror

Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

One of the scariest things that I ever saw happened on a very small scale on a very ordinary day a little over twenty years ago.  Yet it chilled me to the core and still gives me goosebumps when I think about it to this very day.

At the time, I was living in a house in Bowling Green, Ohio, a town with a serious bias against renting to cat owners.  After scouring a number of apartment complexes, I found this two-bedroom home.  It was a little brick house on a slab that was placed strangely in a lot that created the impression that my yard was a public park.  I loved this home for its very oddness.  One of my favorite features was what I called “the Home Ec kitchen,” a large space with more cabinets than a single person could possibly need and the kind of big wall oven that I had always coveted since growing up watching The Brady Bunch.  

Now my happy home did have a few downsides.  It got very hot in the summer. There was a plant trying to grow in the back of the hall closet. And the place had plenty of insects. Crickets got in a lot.  My cat ate them. However, there was an ant problem. The previous owners had very young children who left the carpet a sticky disaster. I imagine the ants had gotten quite used to some snacks here and there.  

spider and ant

Illustration by Genevieve Griffin

There were two main groups of ants. The big black ones sometimes made their way into the bathroom, but by the time the events of this story occurred, I had pretty much defeated them in an epic battle of poison and more poison. The other group of ants was smaller and, in a way, kind of comical. They swarmed in the laundry room from time to time, swirling around in easily vacuumed up clumps. The tiny ants and I had reached a state of détente, peacefully coexisting as long as they stayed in their place.

One day though, I made a mistake. I put a pizza box next to the trash under the sink. The lure proved irresistible to the family Formicidae. Overnight they launched an expedition and established a supply line running bits of cheese and bread back to their domain.  As invasions go though, it was fairly courteous. They skirted along the side under the eaves of the cabinet above.

But that was their fatal error.  Unbeknownst to them and me, something had chosen an ideal position from which to hunt.  And so, as I watched the ant parade, a disturbingly and impossibly long set of arachnid legs slowly unfurled from above and plucked up a worker from the trail.

Like that, the ant was gone.  

Ants being ants, they just trudged along with enviable single-mindedness. I was left feeling the dread.  One of them had just been picked off, erased, and none of her hive mates knew any better.  In numbers, ants can be quite formidable, but the attack was so stealthy no insectoid equivalent of alarm was raised.

Predation is a fact of the natural world, but this felt like something more to me – a lesson in the cold and random nature of the universe.