Jodi Lea Stewart

Loving and Writing About the Southwest and the South

Ants as Miners

If you grew up without television, you’d probably think watching chubby red ants bringing treasures home to their anthills was loads of fun too.

I know I did. Luckily, we had tons of anthills to scope out on our Arizona ranch.

If I stood or squatted on a rock beside the mounds, the ants mostly thought of me as scenery. That was okay with me. Some types of ant attention can be painful, you know.

For hours I watched ants carry bits and pieces of sticks, weeds, rocks, dead insects (especially beetles and wasps) and flicks of flint back to their mounds without a word of complaint.

I never actually witnessed them placing their goodies on the outside of their pebbly homes. Invariably, they took their gleaned material straight into the mysterious opening leading to the central parts of their colony. I was sure all good ants made sure they obtained Queenie’s orders before doing any exterior decorating.

Unless they were rebels.

Ant-Man-Paul-Rudd-Cosplay-Costume-Leather-Jacket-750x750 I don’t think I saw any rebel ants, but I thought I saw one wearing a teeny little leather outfit once. Or did I imagine that?

Anyway, my favorite anthill pickings were tiny hollow bone beads, little bits of ancient pottery and fragments of flint, and obsidian. Less often, I found miniature arrowheads fashioned centuries ago for hunting small animals and birds.

What I never found was an Arizona pyrope garnet—an anthill garnet.

Reportedly, most of the anthill garnets (silicates) are mined by ants from beneath the earth in the Navajo Nation. The gems are not only rare, but also known to be some of the brightest reds of the entire garnet family.

Arizona pyrope garnets were fashioned into bullets by the Navajos in the 1800s. Navajos believed the dark red color helped produce fatal wounds. Or so I’ve heard. I haven’t asked any of my Navajo friends if that’s true or not, so I mention it here only as a point of interest.

One myth I’m happy to squash is about the two and three-carat size “anthill garnets” touted on infomercials and ads. Though sources vary widely about how much weight an ant can carry (from ten to fifty times their own weight…and I lean toward the latter), it’s doubtful an ant can carry much more than a garnet about the size of an English pea.

Thoreau’s take on ants . . . 

Over the centuries, ants have been used as examples of diligence and sacrifice. Most famous people had at least one or two things to say about them.

For example, Thoreau said it wasn’t enough to be busy like the ants. He said, “We should also know what we are busy about.”

I agree. And Thoreau’s end-of-sentence preposition is okay, too.

Likewise, I think Thoreau would agree that ants mining little jewels out of the earth is both resourceful AND amazing.

And no, I don’t believe they use pickaxes.

Just because you may want to know, a few facts about Garnets:

  • Garnets are called carbuncles in the Bible.
  • Garnets have been found in Egypt, dated around 3100 B.C.
  • Garnets were found In Samaria, dated about 2300 B.C.
  • Garnets come in every color.
  • January’s birthstone is a garnet.
  • A brief look at the industrial use of garnets:*
  • Garnets are a 7 to 7.5 on the Mohs Scale of Hardness. To compare, diamonds are about a 10.
  • Since garnets are 1) generally inexpensive, 2) rate high on the Mohs Scale of Hardness, and 3) are easy on equipment, they are preferred for use in cutting metal, plastic, and stone with water-jet cutters.
  • A water jet uses garnets in granular sand 50-, 80- to 120-grit sandpaper manufactured in Coeur d Alene, Idaho.
  • Two hundred hours of use is garnered from one mixing tube of garnet sand grit, vs. only thirty minutes from an aluminum oxide mixture.

*Many thanks to Michael Castaῆeda, water-jet professional, for the technical information about garnets.

Treasures from the earth seem extra special. Have you ever found a treasure gathered by an ant or another kind of insect? I’d love to hear from you.


Just for fun . . .

My cat has been borrowing unauthorized media?
I just found out my cat has been borrowing unauthorized media!



12 thoughts on “Ants as Miners

  1. What an interesting read! I spent many childhood hours ant-watching … so many Santa brought an Ant Farm that Christmas. My family said I’d outgrow my fascination with all creatures great and small, but apparently it’s terminal. We have TV now, but I still find the ants more entertaining.

  2. Wow — I did not know all that about garnets, my birthstone, or that ants dug stuff up. I never paid much attention to bugs growing up — never liked most of them. I think my head was always buried in a book. But it makes perfect sense if you think about it. Creatures that dig underground must do something with the dirt, and if what’s in the dirt isn’t valuable to them, then it’s sitting around someplace on top waiting to be found with the cast off dirt. Interesting!

    1. Knowing how busy you are, I doubly appreciate your reading my blog, Laird. It was a fun one to write and reaches deep into my childhood. Thanks!

  3. Wow, that is a lot of facts about garnets! I just bookmarked it for reference next time someone asks what my birthstone is.
    Red is one of my favorite colors, especially in the deep shade of garnet, so I always loved my birthstone–but I’ve never heard many fun facts about it! 🙂

    1. Now you can tell others that you have the coolest birthstone ever…it’s even loved in the industrial world! My mom’s birthday is also in January. For many years, her wedding set was white gold with garnets. Very beautiful. When she changed her set, she had the garnets made into a ring for me. Probably don’t need to tell you that I love it!

  4. First, this is insanely cool. I mean, who knew?

    I’m not kidding when I say that although I didn’t know any of these impressive Ant facts before reading your post, however I have always been a huge Ant Fan! I am so in awe of Ant skills, work ethic, ingenuity, strength (aka, when they’re hauling around stuff 4x their size!) … the list goes on. Have you ever seen an Ant that wasn’t doing something? Nope — no hanging out in the sun,taking naps … no ma’am! The little dudes are always on the move. Absolutely love em!

  5. Garnets are my birthstone, I do like them now, but I used to prefer sapphires. Love your ant picture, they are fascinating creatures. I might re-post this on my blog some time if you don’t mind. 🙂

  6. Very interesting. As a child, I did watch ants, but never saw them bring up any garnets. I probably wouldn’t have know what they were if they did.

    Talking about insects and such, when I moved to California in my early teens, we rented a house. I remember washing my hair and going outside to sit and dry it in the sun and found hundreds of black widow spiders all over the backside of the house. I was only briefly scared until I sat and watched them work in their webs; hurrying to a fly caught in the web and then rolling it’s spider silk quickly around it and storing it for future dinner. I know it sounds ewwww! but it really was more fascinating than scary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: