I used to be proud that I’d never taken a sick day. Not that I never got sick, mind you -and not that, in a desperate act of vengeance, I wished to infect those around me who had actually washed their hands after visiting the restroom. No, my reasons were more grounded in guilt than incapacity: maternally derived guilt that I had been so unwise as to let my guard down. Let the Family down.
My mother had always seen illness as a sign of weakness. She had an invariable treatment for anything that raised a fever: two aspirins at bedtime and an extra thick blanket that I was not allowed to throw off no matter the discomfort. She had read somewhere in one of our bathroom editions of Readers Digest, that germs couldn’t tolerate heat, and so that made them more vulnerable to the aspirins. I would spend a sweat-filled night tossing and turning, fearing the door would suddenly open and her outline appear, arms akimbo and silhouetted in the feeble hall light, to do blanket-check. My early years were fraught.
However, now that I am retired, and only a shadowed memory remains of my mother, I am a different creature. A weaker specimen. I have become a barometer of sorts and find that my head can reliably predict approaching weather fronts long before my phone app decides to alert me. Headaches would never qualify as real sickness for my mother though -they don’t arrive with a fever, or spots on my face that I could point to as proof of concept. They do not cough, nor does my voice rasp like a smoker’s, and the only rheum that fills my eyes is from age, not inflammation. Headaches are an invisible burden. Silent trials. Mother invisibles.
Thank goodness then, that they only appeared after I had been allowed to pasture… Okay, forced to pasture: at some stage, none of us can continue to pull the cart, I suppose. My point, though, is that headaches do not allow me to do the normal work expected of a retiree: wandering around the house from room to room looking for the book I’d just put down somewhere, or maybe trying to find a vacant seat in the mall to watch strangers walk past. So, am I required to count my headaches as Sick Days and worry my mother wherever she is?
In my latter years, I’d kind of hoped I would no longer be held to the same standards, that I was past the need to account for my bodily moods. And I find that I am increasingly resistant to the maternal upper blanket. It occurs to me that I am an animal after all, and need to soldier through adversity just like them without the humiliation of needing to declare sick days. Only humans get man-colds, and that-time-of-the-months. Or at least, so I assumed until I came across a strange article in the Smithsonian magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ants-take-sick-days-too-180970881
‘According to a new study, humans are not alone in their efforts to sequester the sick. In the presence of contagious pathogens, humble garden ants may also change their behavior to keep contaminated critters away from other members of the colony… Because they are often in close contact, ants are also vulnerable to contagious diseases. Studies have shown that ants are able to keep illness at bay through a number of hygienic mechanisms, like removing garbage and the bodies of dead colony members from their nests.’
I imagine it’s rather difficult to study individual ants, but ‘an automated tracking system developed by Swiss researchers in 2013 let Stroeymeyt [a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who studies collective behavior in ant colonies] and her colleagues get a detailed look at how 22 lab-reared ant colonies behave when disease is percolating in their midst.’ So, ‘the researchers exposed some, but not all, of the foragers from 11 colonies to the fungus Metarhizium brunneum, which is frequently found in the soil of garden ants’ habitats and is known to make them sick.’ And, ‘when the foragers were put back in their enclosure, the contaminated ants spent more time outside of the nest, meaning that they had less contact with the colony’s most valuable members… Foragers that had not been exposed to the fungus also increased the amount of time spent away from the nest. And the nurses inside the nest moved the young further inward and spent more time overlapping with them, which “could be seen as a spatial isolation from the foragers,” Stroeymeyt says… It is entirely possible, according to Stroeymeyt, that an ant would be able to detect a festering fungus on one of its colony members, just as easily as it would be able to smell a pathogen on its own body.’
There is also an intriguing possibility why non-contaminated foragers also avoided the nest -they were treating the contaminated workers. ‘Ants produce formic acid through a gland on the tip of their gaster, or abdomen; they can kill fungal spores on one another by picking up formic acid in their mouths and licking the bodies of their pathogen-laden buddies.’
But there’s even more: ‘…the probability of the queen and nurses receiving a potentially fatal load of the fungus went down, but the probability of these important ants receiving a low load went up. “That’s similar to immunization or vaccination in humans,” Stroeymeyt explains.’
It’s hard not to be humble when we discover that various clever mechanisms and strategies that we assumed humans had invented, were sometimes there all along -all around us, in fact- albeit writ small.
It does also open the curtain on all that guilt I thought I had hidden away, however. Perhaps I was too hasty in damning those who resorted to sick days so many years ago. Too condescending. I mean, I’ll bet there’s an Aesop Fable hiding in there: a grasshopper and ant thing, maybe. But in the new version, the workaholic ant stays away from his job until he’s better, and then goes to the office party. The sick grasshopper, on the other hand, throws caution to the wind, goes to the office party right away, infects his colleagues, and they all die….
A bit dark? Well, so was life under the blanket, eh?