B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S02E22 Deadly Ants

Cold open on… ants! A bunch of ants… Is that the correct collective noun? Maybe it’s ‘flock’ of ants? ‘Gaggle’ of ants? Anyway, Leonard Nimoy talks about ants over footage of ants killing larger insects. It could be the introduction to any nature film on ants, except that the creepy electronic music is minor-keying it hard. A particularly deadly form of ant threatens to take over the USA, we’re told.

The original Anthill Mob

This is probably going to be one of those mostly factual, slightly sensationalised episodes. They’re not so bad, in small doses.

Tropical rainforest, closing in on leafcutter ants. Nimoy talks about how surreal leafcutters at work look, which is true, I guess. Some sinister chords play for some reason, then we get into gentle nature documentary music as we have a perfectly straightforward explanation of leafcutter ants. We’re dealing with a low budget, so there’s no camera in the ant-nest like Attenborough would have, but it’s all good and informative…

Okay, now we’re looking at monkeys. Huh. Ocelot. Tapir. The tapir needs a constant source of food, got it. What about ants? Oh, being smaller than tapirs, they don’t need so much food. Well that came back around, I guess. Aztec ants living in a hollow branch. They gang up and attack a vine. An anteater climbs a tree, that’s pretty cool i guess.

Army ants now. The photography is pretty good for its time, but by today’s standards it’s not so great. Maybe I watch too many nature documentaries, but I’m not impressed so far. Nimoy’s a great narrator, of course, but there’s only so much he can do with the material. Army ants do army ant stuff. Fight each other, kill a spider. Oh look, a macaw.

More South American ants. The predatory ant eats a katydid.

Now we get to the meat of the matter. Nimoy–standing in a wheat field for some reason–tells us that people traditionally see ants as minor nuisances, but that attitude is changing because of fire ants.

The next bit has some lovely camerawork, so I feel bad about putting down the South America sequence. Fire ant nests are shot in the dawn light, tiny little grassy hills looking super ominous. It’s good stuff. Over footage of ants at work, Nimoy talks about the painful venom of these ants. He goes into great detail about the ant nest. Again, pretty standard nature documentary stuff.

Footage of ant warfare, as the fire ants do battle with regular ants. They’re blind and deaf, and wipe out native ant species. Lots of shots of fire ants killing larger insects. Meh… Holy crap! A field just covered with fire ant nests. Oh, wow.

Now a series of images of fire ant nests in all sorts of locations, from country to suburbs to cities. We go into history, the fire ants were a species from Brazil, accidentally introduced into the USA. They spread rapidly, and their mounds messed up farm equipment. We’re mostly looking at archived footage in lousy technicolour.

A guy in protective clothes spreads chemicals, and we’re talking about decades of failed attempts to fight fire ants with insecticides. MASH era choppers drop poison baits. Oh, wow… a bunch of converted WWII bombers are pressed into service. Awesome.  But doomed. The ants just kept on spreading.

Now we’re in the Dept of Agriculture’s fire ant control lab. It’s just as awesome as you think. Men in white coats and porn ‘taches manipulating ants in white plastic trays.

On to the life cycle of the fire ant. Winged queens mate in the air with winged males, then fly off to form a new colony. The ants only recognise the queen because of a pheromone she exudes. Back at the lab, the scientists are trying to use this pheromone to con the other ants into believing that a piece of stick is their queen. Heh! Stupid ants.

Ants viewed through electron microscopes, neat. Oh, wow. A scientist milking venom from a fire ant under a microscope. Close up on the ant attacking a human hand. First it bites with its mandibles, then squirts venom into the wound. Nasty! Close up of skin of ant victim – ew! Aw, now dogs and cows that have been stung. And pictures of people who have been attacked. Yikes. Just when I thought America couldn’t get more scary.

A lovely pastoral shot of a quiet river through green hills, while Nimoy explains how people have died from complications from fire ant attacks. Talking about the spread of the ants, infesting vast new areas. Shot of the space needle – thought they were a hot weather species? No Nimoy claims that scientists have predicted the ants will reach Seattle and New York (cue Empire State Building).

Back to the ant nests in the morning light. Nimoy explain that the ants’ scientific name is solenopsis invicta – the unconquered ant. It’s a strong reading over an artful shot. Probably the best bit of the episode.

Now Nimoy in a field. Ongoing struggle between man and insect. Fire ants evolving – God, science was in a better place before the 1980s! Quote from an entomologist who claimed that we’ve never destroyed even a single insect species, segueing awkwardly into Nimoy making a specific claim of fire ant indestructibility.

So a competent episode but not especially memorable. The closest thing we’ve seen to it so far was the Killer Bees episode in season one, which honestly was better. The next couple of episodes are the last two of second season — The Coming Ice Age and The Garden of Eden. Honestly, they sound a lot better.

Best Quote

Nimoy: “The campaign [against the ants] has been called the Vietnam of entomology.”

Summing Up

Nimoyness: 7/10, Crazy Subject: 3/10, Sinister Electronic Music: 4/10, Memorable episode: 2/10, ANTS!!!: 10/10. Overall: 26/50. Pass

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B.G. Hilton - Author