“It’s the ants’ world, and we’re just visiting.” So says Dino Grandoni in The Washington Post.
We tend to think of ourselves as the most important of God’s creatures, since Genesis tells us that we are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God (1:26). So, why would Grandoni say such a thing? Well, an estimate has been made of the number of ants on Earth, and the total is going to surprise you: 20 quadrillion.
That is a staggering sum, for sure. Perhaps it is easier to state the number as 20,000 trillion. But no, even that is completely mind-boggling. How about this: For every person on Earth, there are 2.5 million ants. And I wish some of you would come and get your million or so ants out of my house.
Yes, it is the ants’ world. God must love ants because he has made so many of them.
A group of scientists from the University of Hong Kong concluded that the total mass of ants on Earth is about 12 megatons of dry carbon. “Put another way,” says Grandoni, “if all the ants were plucked from the ground and put on a scale, they would outweigh all the wild birds and mammals put together.”
Ants may be tiny, but they outweigh us. Literally.
The ant is not mentioned frequently in the Bible, although the book of Proverbs says, “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (6:6-8). Ants are praised for their efforts and productivity, even though they have no bosses breathing down their necks.
Proverbs also says, “Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer” (30:25). Once again, they are praised for their faithful preparations for winter.
But the biblical claim about their “little strength”? That’s debatable. Ants can lift 20 times their body weight, which is an amount that any human bodybuilder would envy. If a 200-pound person had the strength of an ant, they could lift about 4,000 pounds!
In addition, ants did better than dogs during the recent pandemic. It was because they have antibodies. Not doggy bodies. Antibodies.
The creation story in Genesis does not mention ants by name, but they probably fit into the category of the living creatures that were created on Day Six — right before human beings. On this day, God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind” (1:24).
When God looked on the ants and other creeping things, “God saw that it was good” (v. 25).
We humans find ants to be creepy, but they are really very good. An author named Diane Brady points out that “God made so many ants because ants are important housekeepers for the earth. Ants, not earthworms, turn most of the world’s soil, drain it and enrich it. Ants dispose of 90 percent of the corpses of small dead animals. As the world’s gardeners, ants spread and plant more seeds than any other creature.”
“Disposing of corpses.” Yes, that’s kind of creepy. But acting as “the world’s gardeners”: Spreading seeds, turning soil, and enriching soil. That’s some very good work.
The book of Genesis reminds us of our place in God’s creation, and how important it is for us to preserve what God has made. One of the reasons that the scientists from the University of Hong Kong are counting ants is that they are worried about insect numbers. Scientists are seeing declines in some insect populations in Germany and Puerto Rico. We could be facing a “bugpocalypse,” says Dino Grandoni, one driven by habitat destruction, pesticides, and climate change. “Over 40 percent of insect species may go extinct,” he reports, “with butterflies and beetles facing the greatest threat.”
Are the ants of the world in danger? Too early to tell.
Whether the number of ants remains at 20 quadrillion or not, we humans have some work to do. And it begins with seeing ourselves as stewards of God’s creation. Our challenge is to care for creation as we follow the command of God to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (v. 28).
Even the ants.
Jonathan Merritt, author of the book Green Like God: Unlocking the Diving Plan for Our Planet, was sitting in a theology class with one of his favorite seminary professors. The professor was talking about the revelations of God, and he said, “When we destroy God’s creation, it’s similar to tearing a page out of the Bible.”
Merritt was stunned. He was a staunch conservative who thought that environmentalism was incompatible with his Christian faith. At that moment he thought to himself, I would never tear a page out of Scripture. He left the class a different person, knowing that he could not continue to live the way he did.
When we destroy God’s creation – even the creepy things of the Earth – we tear a page out of the Bible. We should not harm God’s world or God’s book. Neither belongs to us. They are simply entrusted to our care.
Now active in caring for creation, Merritt encourages people to approach the environment by confessing that we have sinned. He encourages us to deal with our wrongdoing “by admitting that we have allowed our air, water, and land to be polluted.”
In the first chapter of Genesis, God says that men and women should “rule over” the creatures of the earth, but unfortunately dominion is often understood as domination (v. 28). Merritt prefers to focus on the tilling and keeping of the second chapter of Genesis, in which God “took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (v. 15). Other Bible translations say, “till it and keep it” (NRSV), “tend it and watch over it” (NLT); “take care of it and to look after it” (CEV); “work the ground and keep it in order” (The Message).
However, this passage is translated, it is clear that humans are commanded to practice good stewardship of the Earth. We are to be the prudent managers described by Jesus in his parable of the faithful or unfaithful slave. “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time?” asks Jesus. “It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns” (Matthew 24:45-46).
God has given us just one Earth, with precious but limited resources, so the challenge for us is to “rule over” creation with care, to be “faithful and wise” servants. We need to recognize that those of us living in the United States are leaving an especially large ecological footprint. If everyone consumed energy the way a middle-class American did, the world would need the resources of four to 10 Earths.
Caring for creation through energy conservation is an important way for us to “take care” of creation (Genesis 2:15). So, turn off those lights and electronics that are not in use, or install more energy-efficient appliances in your home and church. Look for opportunities to leave your car in the driveway and walk or bike or, at the very least, plan your trip through town so you only go once. Whenever we act in ways that are environmentally responsible at home, at church or in the world, we are practicing good stewardship of God’s marvelous creation.
We can also show our care for creation by eating food that is local, in season and organic. Buying local food reduces the amount of energy used to transport food great distances. Food currently travels, on average, more than 1,500 miles to our tables. We also do well to eat fruits and vegetables that are in season because they do not need to be moved from a warmer environment to a colder one.
Organic foods are produced without toxic pesticides, which are energy-intensive in their production and can have negative environmental impacts. While the reason for declining insect populations is not completely clear, pesticides and climate change are among the likely culprits. Local, seasonal and organic fruits move us closer to the original intention of God, who said in the first chapter of Genesis, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food” (v. 29).
Seed-bearing plants and trees with fruit. Food that is good for us, and good for the Earth.
Audrey Wilkinson, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, started buying organics a few years ago. She says, “By utilizing these resources we do not only help our bodies stay healthy, but we also cause less harm to the Earth and animals that have been given into our care.” By eating organic food, we do less harm to animals and insects. We allow the bees to continue their pollination, and the ants to spread seeds, turn the earth and dispose of corpses.
Creepy, but good.
In all these ways, we follow the example of Jesus, who encouraged His followers to practice good stewardship of the resources entrusted to them. And we show our commitment to be responsible in our rule over every living creature that moves on the Earth.
Even the ants of the ground. All 20 quadrillion of them.