ARNOLD, MD. -- As always, everyone's studying failures and no one's looking at success.
Here we are in a society beset with social and political conflicts, crumbling infrastructure, crises in leadership, confusion over vocational and sexual roles, housing shortages and traffic congestion -- among other ills -- while out in Anne Arundel County a community of more than 500,000 has mastered all these problems and nobody's paying any attention.
There, a civic-minded population of commuters -- farmers, builders and military types -- live and prosper together in six cluster developments with ample employment opportunities, much visiting back and forth and few apparent rivalries or conflicts. They're even ecological models: Each development is surrounded by ample green space; environmentalists say nearby woodlands actually benefit from their presence.
"They're kind of model citizens," says Stefan Cover of Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology -- the Smithsonian of sociobiology. "I don't know why some scientist hasn't made them a major project."
Drawing too many lessons from the burgeoning community here might be making a sociological mountain out of an anthill, even if it is one of the largest anthills in North America, which Cover says it well may be.
But who can resist?
While College Park Avenue was choked with traffic and construction equipment the other day, the 115-yard ant highway at its edge was handling probably eight times the travelers with only a trace of the confusion.
Something's going on here.
Formicologist Cover, assistant curator of the world's largest ant collection and a sort of Margaret Mead of mound ants, says the Arnold ants must have been working for four or five years to build the three-foot-high Gotham they've nested into a roadside honeysuckle bank just down the road from Anne Arundel Community College. Not to mention the five other nearby nests along the ant highway.
Though the entire complex is in clear sight of the road, nobody paid it any mind until last month, when a motorist whose car had broken down nearby called it to the attention of state and county officials. He thought it might be a vanguard settlement of the dreaded fire ant, well known in Texas and Louisiana. Fire ants are the sort that run in rival gangs, pick fights, bite people and generally trash the neighborhood.
State entomologist Gaye Williams, however, identified the settlers as Formica exsectoides, a well-mannered, middle-class sort of ant better known as the Allegheny mound-builder. At first glance, exsectoides look much like any other red ant -- about a quarter-inch long, with red heads and bodies and black bottoms. But Cover, who's been eyeing ants for some 20 years, says they're harmless to humans, far more tolerant and constructive with each other and appear to harbor no tribal prejudices.
"In most ant species, each queen is a rival to every other, and separate nests compete for food and resources," Cover says. But with exsectoides "any one mound could have as many as 30 or 40 queens working together. Workers born of one queen don't discriminate against feeding or tending the offspring of another."
Periodically, he says, a new queen will fly off and start another mound nearby, but even then she and her offspring keep in touch with the old neighborhood, sending food and messengers back along the highway they build through flyover land. The separate mounds then all cooperate and prosper, he says. Maybe they even have Jaycee clubs.
So evolved are the exsectoides socially, Cover says, that their colonies may eventually consist of 30 or 40 separate mounds, all teeming with farmer ants who milk honeydew from the aphids that settle on nearby honeysuckle plants. They even herd milkable aphids below ground in the winter as a reserve food supply. "Hunter-gatherer" ants in the colony, Cover says, range outward to protect it from predators (they can shoot a stream of toxic formic acid a full four inches) and to capture for food other insects and caterpillars that would otherwise damage the honeysuckle.
Their control of caterpillars is so effective, he says, that they're a real boon to forestry. "In Germany, their role is recognized to such an extent there are even forestry societies dedicated to the protection of 'wood ants,' " as their related species is known there.
Are they serving as a model for the new post-Cold War European confederation? Cover can't say.
"I don't know of any biologist or sociobiologist who has made them a big project," he says. "What we know about them has come mostly from incidental information." But even that, he says, can be intriguing.
If mound ants appear unengagingly placid compared to the warlike fire ant, for example, they are also, at times, extremely subtle. Unlike most other species, whose queens fly off with some workers to start a new nest, he says, the exsectoides queen flies off after mating, finds an anthill of another species, knocks off her wings and tries to sneak in disguised as a local girl.
"Generally, the warrior ants of the nest identify her as alien and kill her," Cover says. "But part of the time she uses some sort of chemical means to turn off their aggression and get inside. Once inside she disposes of the queen in some fashion -- or maybe drives her off, we don't really know -- and gets the other ants in the nest to accept her as their queen."
She then begins laying exsectoides eggs, which the non-exsectoides ants care for like their own. But since they can't reproduce without their queen, they are gradually outnumbered by the growing mound ant population, which begins building roads, setting up fern bars and otherwise transforming the neighborhood. Next stop: Mound Ant City.
Theoretically, Cover says, mound ant empires could survive quite awhile. Most insects may live a matter of weeks or months, but a mound ant worker can live from three to seven years and a queen from 10 to 15. Acts of God, however, tend to interfere. To a mound ant an act of God is some human kid doing wheelies up the mound on a motocross bike. While far from endangered -- they range over most of the eastern United States -- Formica exsectoides "tends to be the first ant to disappear when people show up," Cover says. "Kids just love to wreck their mounds."
The fate of the mound ants in Arnold remains unclear. Their mounds, the largest of which covers an 8-by-15-foot oval and approaches the maximum size Cover's ever heard of, lie in densely thicketed land with subdivisions on either side.
Will we learn anything from them before they're tire tracks? Do we ever?