Here’s an ideal sampling site. I’ll collect ants just off the boarding platform on the concrete and tar, and then will set more cookie baited vials off in the distance in the trees and grass beyond the tracks.
It was a hot sunny day in Highland Park when I arrived at the station. I walked up there wearing my green-sleeved jersey shirt and my Cubs hat. I remember looking up at the sky only to be blinded by the sun. “Yep, we’ll mark that one down as sunny and clear,” I breathed to myself. I found a nice patch of bushes to put a couple of cookie baits in and put some on the boarding platform out of the way of train goers. I began my visual survey with my tweezers in one hand and an aspirator in the other. About 15 minutes into my collection, I noticed I had a shadow. A small boy no older than 7 years old had begun following me as I crouched under bushes, examined trees, and collected ants. I gave him a glance and a brief smile which he quickly returned to me just before I went back to suck up an ant. As soon as I had captured the insect, the boy poked my back and shrugging his shoulders asked me what I was doing. I explained to him that I was looking for different kinds of ants in the area. “Oh,” he said, “You mean like the red and the black ones?”
“That’s exactly right,” I replied. He quickly told me that he knew why some ants were red while others were black.
“You see,” he began, “there are two different kinds of ants because the black ones are nice. You know, they just want to crawl on you and stuff. But the red ones, those are the mean ants because if they get on you then they’ll bite.”
“I see. You really know your ants, huh?” I waited a second for a response that would never come. The boy, like most kids I know, lost his interest in me and ran off to go play the Gameboy that his mother had pulled out of her purse. A few minutes later the two boarded a train and were on their way. My day however, was far from over.
As the sampling time almost completely expired I watched a police cruiser pull up to the rear of the station and two gentlemen exited the vehicle. They quickly approached me and after a few awkward moments of silence one of them gestured to me.
“Uh…hey there,” he started.
“Hi,” I said. Another blanket of silence fell.
“Whatcha…uh…whatcha doin’ there?” It was an awkward statement to say the least. It was almost as if he wasn’t sure whether or not he should treat me as an adult or as a child.
As I began explaining my situation and the project to the officer his facial expression changed a good three times in thirty seconds. First, amazement, followed by curiosity, and finally, relief. I showed him one of the alcohol vials that had several specimens I had collected over the past 45 minutes. He held them up to the sky as his partner leaned over to get a good look. They looked long and hard at that vial as if by looking together they would make some sort of magic happen. After rotating the vial several times over he handed the vial back to me, “Well, the ticket agent in the building called us and said that she had a suspicious person in the vicinity. This is honestly the first time I’ve heard of or seen someone collecting ants, but you know how it is. The railroad tracks attract some strange people.”
After that statement I cocked my head. “Oh no no no, I’m not saying YOU’RE one of the strange people, just that, ya know, strange people come around here. I’m still gonna have to take down your information though because you were reported.”
“Well,” I replied, “I suppose it’s a day of firsts, your first time seeing someone collecting ants and my first time having to give my information to the authorities.”
After all the fun of giving my name, address, phone number, and all that other good stuff, the officer told me that he would talk to the ticket agent. He came back a few moments later, “Welp, you’re all good. Take it easy. Good luck with your collections. I’m gonna share this info with the rest of the department so you should be all good from now on.” And with that, he walked away.
Sometimes that’s just how things go. Field biology is a lot of fun and you just never know what you’re going to get. Until next time, I’ll be out working on the railroad!
Jeremy Boeing is a rising sophomore at Lake Forest College and is interested in all sorts of science, especially field biology. As members of the Richter Scholar program at Lake Forest, Jeremy and fellow student Gabe Trujillo are working with Professor Sean Menke this summer to investigate ants that live near the Metra trains in Chicago.