1610: Fire Ants

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Fire Ants
Here in the entomology department, we have a simple two-step formula for answering any question: (1) ants are cool, and (2) we forgot the question because we were thinking about ants.
Title text: Here in the entomology department, we have a simple two-step formula for answering any question: (1) ants are cool, and (2) we forgot the question because we were thinking about ants.


Cueball, a university student, is meeting with Hairbun (likely his mentor or somebody qualified to give college advice) asking her advice concerning his second thoughts about grad school. Her response begins with a popular reference from the Bible concerning ants; however, she specifically narrows in on the sub-family of fire ants.

The book of Proverbs is a self-proclaimed book on receiving wisdom and instruction to be made wise. Thus, her response appears to begin as an instruction to him in response to his question. The proverb in particular she appears to begin quoting instructs the lazy person to "Go to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider her ways..." as she prepares for the desolation of winter by providing during the bounty of summer despite not having to be told so. The assumption by the reader would be that she is going to compare Cueball to a lazy person and instruct him to prepare for the later years (winter of life) by studying now while he is young (summer of life).

However, after the initial phrase she instead discusses a cool fact about fire ants. (Specifically the ability of fire ants to join together to form floating rafts in case of flooding). The story could function as a parable on teamwork and collaboration in the face of disaster, but such a metaphor does not apply to the personal life choices Cueball is considering. Cueball silently considers possible interpretations of the fact as a metaphor, then asks her what lesson he is supposed to take away from it. To this she replies with her fascination for ants (Ants are so cool! ). Correctly, Cueball states that she is not big on metaphors, as there were none hidden in her first statement. She continues to tell him what she is big on: Ants.

This last exchange may suggest that the expected metaphor would have had as little effect on Cueball's choice to continue grad school as an excited rant about fire ants (since he was just waiting for a metaphor anyway). Alternatively, it expresses that Hairbun finds more instruction in the modern study of the natural world than in classical writings. In either case, it is left ambiguous whether her argument could be helpful at all answer Cueball's dilemma.

Before reading the title text the reader may have assumed that Cueball went to meet with a University adviser. But the title text instead presents her as an entomologist, someone who studies insects. In this case, presumably, Cueball's grad studies are in entomology and he is meeting a professor that might act as a career mentor. Thus, her discourse on fire ants may have been to persuade Cueball that his grad studies in entomology were well worth continuing because of the exciting nature of the field of study. This would achieve the intent of the proverb she appeared to quote (convincing Cueball to continue life preparations by finishing grad school) although she discarded its wording.

In almost an immediate and seemingly bizarre contradiction, she chalks up her strange rambling on fire ants as just a formula that all entomology personnel use when asked any question. They use a two-step formula to answer any questions. It won't help you much because all you will learn is that ants are cool and then they have forgotten anything else you asked them while they continued to think of ants. This would imply that the answer Cueball received had literally nothing to do with his question or situation he was in and any similarity to being a meaningful answer or even a proverb of instruction was purely coincidental and unintended.

Another popular example where the phrase consider the from the Bible has been spoofed can be found in Monty Python's Life of Brian Consider the lilies sketch. However, this refers to a passage in Matthew instead of Proverbs.

It seems likely that Randall is fascinated by ants (he is fascinated by a lot of cool stuff…)

  • In 638: The Search the SETI project is re-imagined from the perspective of ants, who reach the same conclusion humans often do.
  • According to footnote 2 of the what if? no. 73: Lethal Neutrinos, there are enough ants on earth to fill more than 100 football stadiums to the brim.
  • In his celebration game for his new book 1608: Hoverboard, there is a scene in the Star Destroyer were Cueball is talking to a giant ant queen:
Cueball: What's up?
Ant queen: The usual. Poopin' out ants.
Cueball: Eww.


[Cueball is talking to Hairbun, an advisor, who is sitting behind a desk.]
Cueball: I'm having second thoughts about grad school and could use some advice.
[Same setting as before. The animated advisor talks while gesticulating with her hands.]
Advisor: Consider the fire ant.
Advisor: When there's a flood, fire ants survive by joining together into giant floating rafts.
[Cueball is just standing there in the next beat-panel.]
[Back to the first setting but in a larger frame.]
Cueball: Wait, what lesson am I supposed to take from that?
Advisor: Ants are so cool!
Cueball: ...You're not big on metaphors, are you.
Advisor: I am big on ants.


Fascinating facts about ants[edit]

  • The queen can lay millions of eggs in a lifetime that may reach 30 years.
  • Ants mainly communicate through pheromones which function as chemical signals.
  • The queen does not directly control the other ants in the colony. She receives chemical feedback from the workers who care for and feed her; this feedback causes her to adjust the type and quantity of eggs she produces.
  • All worker ants are female.
  • Weaver ants weave together the leaves that form their colony's nest using larvae silk.
  • Leafcutter ants cut up leaves to bring home to feed a fungus that they in turn eat.
    • Ancestors of the Leafcutters began cultivating a variety of fungal gardens around 50 million years ago. This may make them the first farmers on Earth, millions of years before humans even existed.
  • Army ants, known and feared for their aggressive raids which may claim 100,000 insect prey, have no permanent nest. They form temporary bivouacs using the ants' bodies as the structure.
  • Army and Driver worker ants are blind. They navigate by following trails laid down by blind scouts.
  • Honeypot ants select specialized workers, called repletes, as storage containers, engorging them with food until they swell to maximum size. The repletes share the food with the colony when other food is scarce.
  • Although it takes a million ants to weigh a pound, scientists believe that as recently as the time of the American Revolution, the total weight of ants was greater than the total weight of humans on the earth.

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misinterpreting a question as an invitation to talk about one's pet obsession is symptomatic of autistic spectrum disorder. although not necessarily so. as, i suppose, is wanting to do science in academe. -- 13:12, 30 November 2015 (UTC)

i don't think she was misinterpreting the question,she probably is so obsessed about ants that she tries to talk about them every chance she gets. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

ok, so "misinterpreting" was a poor choice. try "interpreting, wrongly". and only autists feel like that. to a neuro-typical this isn't even an issue. -- 12:57, 1 December 2015 (UTC)

Theoretically, there's a hidden analogy in that a colony of rather simplistic and specialist individuals can ensure their own survival in the face of adverse environmental conditions by keeping themselves all in one location so that they can continue to perpetuate themselves in the future. And as it is with those heading off to Grad School, so it may also be with ants. 13:29, 30 November 2015 (UTC)

I've just joined, so please forgive the new boy. Perhaps the joke is really to do with biblical references and metaphors, as I have suggested in my contribution to the main article. (User:Paw 42)

There is absolutely no reason to junk up this explanation with biblical references. Please correct, or I will do so. --BobTheMad (talk) 14:41, 30 November 2015 (UTC)

Ooh, scary threat. The biblical reference is completely justified. 22:59, 30 November 2015 (UTC)
Hey jerk, it wasn't a threat. When I made the comment, around 2/3 of the article was about biblical references. It has since been resolved because most people agreed with me. But thanks for playing anyway. --BobTheMad (talk) 14:28, 4 December 2015 (UTC)

Really?? Life of Brian is the most popular? Sorry, that's either crazy inaccurate or needs a citation. I'm pretty confident the Biblical reference was more accurate as a phase origin, though I can't say I feel it adds much to the explanation. Google likes "Consider the lobster" and "Consider the source" better than either when I search for it. When I search for it adding the keyword "phrase," it gives the Biblical reference, but still not as a first result. The Life of Brian doesn't show up in any front page results. Ancientt (talk) 15:13, 30 November 2015 (UTC)

During an initial read through I assumed that he was speaking to a career adviser. Thus, the "consider the fire ant" statement was a take off from the Biblical "consider the ant" statement found in Proverbs 6:6-8. For those who don't know, that particular Proverb is a reprimand to lazy people to consider the diligence and foresight of ants who prepare for the future without being told to do so. Where, lazy people typically have to be micro-managed to get any results from them. So, you assume that hair bun girl is calling cueball lazy because he is rethinking grad school (in this view he is sacrificing diligence and future planning for the now). However, she takes the statement in such a radical direction it loses this meaning - it becomes a rant about how cool fire ants are. Which seems odd until you read the title text and you discover he is in the entomology department (study of insects). Unless cueball regularly visits the entomology department for career advice you can assume that his grad school is about the study of insects. Thus in conclusion, her weird rant about ants really IS meant as a parallel to Proverbs; however, instead of contrasting his behavior to that of ants she is encouraging him to continue his study of insects because of how cool they are. Thus, the joke of using the statement "consider the ant" as a means to get someone to live more responsibly is still being used exactly for that purpose. That's my understanding of it.--R0hrshach (talk) 17:06, 30 November 2015 (UTC)

I like this explanation much better. And even if you use Life of Brian this is still a reference to the bible (as the whole film spoofs Jesus). Hope someone will change to incorporate these bible verses. I do not know them so will stay out of this ;-) --Kynde (talk) 20:17, 30 November 2015 (UTC)
I added the above explanation as alternate because I wasn't sure how to mix in elements of the existing explanation. The quotes from the book of Matthew referenced by Life of Brian may have used the same "consider the" format but it is clear to me by Randall's use of fire ants and the situational context of the joke that he was referencing Proverbs. So I didn't find the Life of Brian reference to have any meaning to the explanation.--R0hrshach (talk) 18:00, 1 December 2015 (UTC)
It's just a really, really minor point (and not germane to anything - but I do feel quite strongly about it) The Life of Brian does not "spoof Jesus" it spoofs the attitudes and behaviours of the people surrounding Jesus. 09:06, 2 December 2015 (UTC)
Thank you to whoever helped by merging the explanations. I moved the Life of Brian fact to the end because it breaks up the explanation and because it is not found in the same area. The wording is similar but meaning is entirely different.--R0hrshach (talk) 21:30, 1 December 2015 (UTC)

Here's my interpretation. I don't think hair bun girl is making an analogy whatsoever. She is simply expressing her obsession/love of ants. By doing so in response to cue ball's plea for advice, she illustrates (knowingly or unknowingly) why she herself attended grad school (I'm assuming she is a professor of entomology - which I think is reasonable given her comment and the title text). She is so obsessed with ants that she attended grad school (a very large undertaking) in order to study them further. Then she proceeded to pursue a career in Academia to continue to study ants. To her, the very idea of having second thoughts of pursuing graduate school to further her studies is probably ridiculous. She probably never had them. Hence she demonstrates all that she needed to know to pursue graduate school - she is big on ants. A little background on me since it informs my interpretation: I spent a lot of time trying to answer this question for myself: "Should I pursue graduate school?" I saw a common thread amongst my professors, leading graduate students, etc. They all wanted nothing more than to learn more about their field of study. The very fact that I was having doubts ended up being a sign to myself that I did not really want to go to graduate school to study, I wanted to go for other reasons that would have made grad school unfulfilling. Supersixfour (talk) 20:27, 30 November 2015 (UTC)

I tried to incorporate your thoughts into the alternate explanation as her reason for launching into the cool fact about fire ants. That is to persuade him that the study of insects is really cool and worthwhile. We never learn Cueball's motivation and whether her enthusiasm won him over or made him realize he wasn't committed enough to that field or level of study. The joke seems to have little to actually do with grad school and more to do with how we give advice or attempt to motivate others through difficult tasks.--R0hrshach (talk) 18:00, 1 December 2015 (UTC)

Maybe Cueball meant to go to the Etymology Dept, not the Entomology Dept. -- Ren0901 (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I'm not sure he would find any more answers to his question in the etymology department than he did in entomology. It would make for a different twist on the same joke though! Probably have less cool information about fire ants though.--R0hrshach (talk) 18:00, 1 December 2015 (UTC)

As someone who has been fascinated by ants my entire life (60+ years) I totally get Hair Bun Girl's enthusiasm. My family treats me the same way when I get on my favorite topic (as I often do and they they always have). Ants are super cool - they've the unofficial mascot for the ALife community, and arguably the most studied insect in most entomology departments. Ed Wilson is one of my heroes (he was the first to form the hypothesis that ants communicate using chemical signals), not only for his work on ants but his impact on all of natural science, and his sincere concern for the future of our world and all the creatures in it. I was excited and happy to see xkcd referring to ants in both the Hoverboard game and the 11/30/15 comic (as well as #638 The Search). From the perspective of a life-long myrmecophile I don't think there's anything complex behind HBG's responses except one I heartily endorse: "Because ANTS!" (maybe I'm on the spectrum, too.) As for the biblical reference, I don't specifically think of it as a "biblical" reference except in as much as it seems to refer to an oft-quoted phrase in the book. Most entomologists and myrmecologists know it well: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise..." (probably referring to a species of Harvester ants that gathers and stores grain). One reason they love it is that it correctly identifies the ones doing the work as female. Personally I think the bible is hilarious (full disclosure - not a believer). I love pointing out (especially to Christians) that there are not 10 but 600 to 1,000 commandments in the bible (depending on your version, affiliation, definition, etc.) including a prohibition against eating hoopoes (a colorful woodpecker-like bird in Afro-Eurasia that eats ants). Finally I would say that there are a large number of more interesting facts about ants that might be used. These could include suicide bombers who blow themselves up to harm enemies, turtle ants with plug-shaped heads to seal nest entrances, honey-pot ants who gorge on food and become living storage vessels to feed the colony - nearly endless fascinating adaptations (see some here). I also take exception to the comment that the queen controls all the other ants. In reality, ants perform different functions depending on caste, age, etc. The queen produces eggs and receives food and chemical feedback about the colony's health and requirements, and adjusts her production of quantity and type of eggs (castes, etc.) as a result of this feedback. She's basically an egg-laying machine enslaved by the colony. And now I'm at risk of someone saying, "Wait, what lesson am I supposed to take from that?" So go to the AntWiki thou sluggard; consider its ways and be wise. Usagi (talk) 19:56, 1 December 2015 (UTC)

Fascinating. You are correct about the larger number of commandments in the Bible (greater than ten); however, they can all be understood with just two. Full disclosure, I am a believer. If you want to talk about it (friendly-like) you can always give me a chat. :) --R0hrshach (talk) 21:30, 1 December 2015 (UTC)

Could the lesson be "if you're struggling, ask your classmates for help"? 15:40, 3 December 2015 (UTC)

At my university, the adviser assigned to me is in the physics department. My friend is in information sciences, and his adviser is in the computer science department. Is this uncommon? The explanation currently seems to suggest that the person Cueball is speaking to wouldn't be an adviser by virtue of what department they are in. 01:05, 6 December 2015 (UTC)

Replace the adviser's dialogue with this:

Consider the supernova. One strong enough to create a black hole momentarily creates so much energy, only the Big Bang was more powerful.


Here in the astronomy department, 1) we're big on space, and 2) We don't remember your question because we were thinking about space.

Then you have me. XD International Space Station (talk) 20:15, 8 December 2015 (UTC)

Contrary to this change, my assumption was always that this person was an Educator of some kind that Cueball was asking aevice of. Either:

  • a pre-Grad School trusted tutor (sorry, not sure how the US education system works, exactly, High School is it?) such as a favoured teacher who was finally taking the opportunity to make a pointed pointer towards her pet interest she has until now held back from overtly promoting, or
  • more likely, a Grad-School teacher/administrator there during Freshers' Wekk to resolve newly-enrolled students's last minute issues. Her 'day job' is of course in the department that she is passionate about.

...but that's just my (original) first reading of the comic. Translating the experience back to a UKcentric scenario. 18:42, 7 January 2022 (UTC)