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Ant No Mountain High Enough

Former Swarthmore professor Neal Weber (1908–2001) had a theory as to how Europe’s common brown pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum L.) first arrived on campus. Beginning in 1889, Swarthmore set out “class ivies,” brought over from meaningful sites such as Swarthmoor Hall in England and the Royal Gardens in Paris.

“It would have been a simple matter for a fecundated female of this ant to have survived the journey in soil about the ivy roots,” Weber explained in 1965 about the ants that eventually took over Parrish Hall.

Two years later, shortly after the pesticide DDT was banned, the yellowish pharaoh ant (Monomorium pharaonis) moved in, too.

“They have lived in Parrish much longer than I have,” Peter Fulton ’84 admitted in a 1979 Phoenix article, “and, like the Pyramids, will continue to thrive long after I am gone.”

He was right. In a 1986 Halcyon ranking of the top six most detested creatures on campus, ants were No. 1. Throughout the 1980s, they plagued campus by spurring false fire alarms: Guileless ants tripped the College’s old photoelectric smoke detectors; clever ones took up safe residence in the sensors. Eventually, Swarthmore’s pest-control service constrained the population with the help of soda straws, baited with sugar mixed with a growth regulator to inhibit the insect’s development cycle.

Despite being a nuisance, Swarthmore ants have influenced us all. Campus’s very first air conditioner was installed on behalf of exotic ants studied in Dr. Weber’s lab. As mentioned, ants were part of the reason the College upgraded its fire safety system. They also sparked at least two April Fool’s Day pranks: In 1971, the Phoenix jokingly reported that 13 million escaped lab ants devoured campus; in 2001, students placed ant art on a sculpture outside Trotter with a “For Sale” sign, suggesting house-hunters should follow up with the queen ant. Moreover, a number of alumni have built ant-related careers—notably the late Carl Rettenmeyer ’53, a pre-eminent expert on army ants.

They tie into Swarthmore’s heritage, too—Quakers, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, were drawn to the natural sciences as a mode of observing God’s creation and a source of practical knowledge. A Philadelphia Quaker, Mary Townsend (1814–1851), published a landmark work in popular entomology, 1844’s Life in the Insect World: or, Conversations Upon Insects, Between an Aunt and her Nieces.

“I have always felt a particular interest in ants,” the titular “Aunt M.” writes. She praises their quiet strength, diligent industriousness, and commitment to supporting their communities despite—or perhaps because of—their individual vulnerability. Perhaps that is why Evan Gregory ’01 compared Swarthmore to an ant colony in his graduation speech, with its “hundreds of worker ants dashing about, constantly worrying about time management, and dozens of thesis adviser ants reprimanding the workers for not finishing their abstracts or bibliographies on time.”