The rain makes many creatures scarce, and it is making us glum.
For the mansion within our mansion lies echoing and uninhabited. There is no patter of feet, no politicking between queen and subjects, and no floor show at which the Shrewsdays may gawp.
I must rewind events a little: back to Christmas, when I was wracking my foolish middle class brain for educationally enhancing Christmas presents.
Will I ever learn? Christmas is for toys, not for education. It is the moment when we cease to browbeat our small loved ones with improving texts and trinkets, and allow them to eat crisps and watch Spongebob in a Santa suit.
No: I bought a myrmicologist’s dream present. A formicarium. To you and I, an ant farm.
It was simple: you put together something which looked like a picture frame and filled the space between the perspex with super-ant-chow and sandy burrowing stuff.
They didn’t, however, provide ants.
Felix, predictably,forgot about it: but recently he reorganised his bedroom and rediscovered the farm. His nimble fingers and engineer’s genes made light work of constructing it, and in a trice it sat ready on the windowsill, an ant condo in trendy green plastic, a window on the ant world.
And there, the project hit a bit of a hitch.
Lately – maybe you’ve heard – an old-fashioned deluge, a veritable fludde has hit these islands. And I believe – correct me if I’m wrong – that ants don’t show their little antennae in heavy rain. It’s a bit hazardous, if you’re an ant, surfing all the ground water which appears swiftly from nowhere.
Added to this, in our inclement climate, the ant spends winter in a period of inactivity. Their alarm clocks were probably just about to go off when the fludde arrived.
Bottom line: we searched our garden, looking high and low. Not an ant showed its face. Nada. Rien.
So there we sat, glum and antless, when help came from an unexpected source.
It is 11 years since researchers at Stanford linked the behaviour of ants firmly to weather conditions. In the book Ants at Work: How Insect Society Is Organized, Deborah M. Gordon, associate professor of biological sciences, outlines how 69 households painstakingly recorded ant sightings in their San Francisco homes.
She and her team found that ants are most likely to breach human strongholds when it is wet. And cold.
This afternoon, Big Al and I trundled down to the primary school to collect Felix and my two stunning little nieces, the princesses.
“Marks out of ten for the day?” I asked each in turn. The eldest princess gave it a three. She looked affronted.
“What was the problem?” I asked sympathetically.
“My packed lunch was full of ants!” she exclaimed.
The drama; you have no idea. The princess had come to her pristine packed lunch of tuna fish sandwiches, yoghurt, fruit and cookie to find an army of ants had got there before her. Outside was wet and cold; and the school was warm and welcoming. A stand packed full of boxes of food was the perfect lure, and the little workers arrived to plunder the spoils.
How they got in is anyone’s guess: the school is a modern construction, sealed against the natural world, and my niece’s packed lunch box zipped tight. Yet still, somehow, they made it in. These creatures are little escape artists. They can penetrate anything.
The school arranged a school dinner and the packed lunch came home untouched by human hand.
I should have been sympathetic. I know. I should have commiserated the loss of the little girl’s favourite sandwiches. Instead, I had only heard this: “Blah blah blah blah blah ants blah blah blah.”
I looked disgracefully gleeful.
“Are they still in there?”
“I think so. I just shut them inside and walked away.”
“Can you bring me the box?” I interrogated. She looked at me as if I had quite lost my reason. Quick, get the phone, text Mummy, Auntie Kate has finally flipped.
She pottered off and brought it to me. My idiosyncratic behaviour had attracted an audience and everyone, even Big Al, soon knew the score. There was hushed silence, an awed pause as five pairs of eyes watched the zip being undone.
They must have been Houdini ants.
As mysteriously as they had appeared, they had plundered and gone back through the ant tunnel from whence they came.
The atmosphere of disappointment was palpable. You could cut it with a knife.
Our ant condo must remain vacant a little longer.