Anthony Picardi :: infection ::

Creative Non-Fiction

Southern Legitimacy Statement

I moved to a small farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 2004. Last year, we finalized a conservation easement on our entire 64-acre farm so it would be perpetually preserved.  The community of woods, pond, fields and salt marsh will be forever protected from the ravages of development and industrialized chicken farming flooding in from the north.  I practiced diversified agriculture like a traditional southern subsistence farmer, raising oysters, soybeans, wheat and corn along with song birds, black bass, honeybees, mushrooms, frogs, and hundreds of other insects and weeds.

In 2022, I left our farm in the custody of another human and moved to Williamsburg, a more urban settlement but still southern enough to be civilized if one is retired.  I brought my fishing rig so I don’t starve but have had to eschew target practice in the front yard.  I moved to a small house with a mature wooded ravine out the back door. On moving day, I transported the citizens living in a rotten sweetgum log to a comparable rotten log in the ravine. This log is the new home to a small colony of carpenter ants, destined to be initiated into the arthropod version of colonial culture.  These are the sisters of cindi caponotus, whom I have come to know and who has taught me to view Homo sapiens from the perspective of an ant, a few millimeters off the ground.  I hope cindi and her nestmates get along with the colonial natives. Mostly, however, I consider myself southern in that I ACT like a southerner – there is always time to say a few words and have a conversation before getting to business.


November 2021

boss, our colony was destroyed. many of us were turned into zombie ants.  it started one morning a week ago.  i noticed a forager hanging over the colony.  she was locked immobile onto a branch by her mandibles.  i figured she was resting in the namaste ant pose – relaxing before a long and tedious pill-bug shift.  the yoga-before-pill-bug practice helps your foraging sister focus.  it puts her in touch with her inner ant.  she was still there in the afternoon but now her eyes were milky white, her legs were sticking straight out and there was a mushroom sprouting from her neck.  i looked around. there were other foragers climbing slowly up into the same shrub overhanging the colony.  i saw another hanging from her mandibles.  ‘yikes,’ i thought.  i needed to alert antoinette fauchietta, our colony disease doctor.  

Photo: bw ant attacked by fungus    Caption: Carpenter ant infected with the malignant ophiocordyceps fungal disease

i hustled to her underground lab.  waving my antennae wildly, i jabbered, ‘doctor fauchietta, ants are hanging from branches by their mandibles.  i saw one with a mushroom cap sprouting from her neck.’

doctor fauchietta responded in the calm measured tone of a scientist, ‘my little sister, this is the malignant ophiocordyceps fungal disease known to infest carpenter ant colonies.  in the medical profession, we call the disease ophio-19.’

‘where does it come from,’ i asked. 

‘we live in rotten logs on the forest floor, in and around the fungus mycorrhizal layer. when an ant picks up a fungal spore, the fungus grows inside the sister. it eventually sprouts its fruiting body, a mushroom cap.  this cap contains thousands of spores that rain down on the forest floor which in turn infect other ants and other insects that walk underneath.’  

‘is there a cure.  what can we do to stop this.’

‘lamentably, there is no cure,’ doctor fauchietta replied, ‘the fungus releases psilocybin. this is a psychedelic drug that takes over our nervous system. it turns ants into zombies.   it commands the victim to seek an elevated place and lock on to a branch in a death grip.  you can tell the infected ones.  they walk around stiff-legged looking for bushes to do their ‘skylarking’, as we call it.’ 

i was becoming desperate, ‘are we all going to die.’  

doctor fauchietta eyed me with her five thousand lenses. ‘not if you take strict precautions immediately.  first you must wash all spores off your body.  i don’t mean an ant bath where you lick yourself. if you do this you will ingest spores and become infected.  find a puddle and splash in the water.  next round up the healthy workers and escape from the rain of these deadly spores.  go into quarantine.’  

the good doctor paused.  she tilted her head, and her antennae pointed straight at me, ‘now comes the hard part. pay attention now. be strong. leave behind any workers that appear to be zombies. prevent them from escaping with you by any means. if you have to, kill them before they infect you. when you get to your quarantine site, evict all infected ants.  this will be hard. but if you don’t follow these rules, everyone in our colony will die.’  

i paused to adsorb this news. ‘ok, i get it. this is science.  i am glad you will be with us to enforce the rules.’

doctor fauchietta’s replied, ‘i will try.  i have been giving zombie ants steroid drug cocktails.  none have worked. once a zombie, always a zombie.  i will see you at the quarantine site.’  tired, she ambled slowly away.

i needed help.  i called a meeting of the wee-too sisters.  nan pelosis arrived first.  her ancestors founded the wee-too female ant solidarity movement 140 million years ago.  this is the reason why all eusocial ant colonies are run by females.  their master stroke came 120 million years ago when they crafted the solution to male domination. the highest court in those days was packed with drunken sex deviants who called themselves the craven-gnaws, after their habit of noshing fermented hackberries.  the craven-gnaws were about to legalize a dangerous sexual behavior known as the dragonfly flutter.  this often resulted in broken necks for the female participant.  in bold direct action, nan pelosis’ ancestors organized a cadre of wee-toos to arrest the drunken craven-gnaw judges.  they were ‘impeached’ on the thorns of a greenbriar vine winding up a peach tree.  while the legality of the action was questionable, the colony, which was 98 percent female, believed justice was served.  

‘nan, we need to do something.  doctor fauchietta says we need to separate the healthy ants from the zombies and escape to a quarantine site immediately.’  

‘relax’, said nan, ‘i will get homeland security to arrest the zombies while we rescue the eggs.’  we hustled off to the homeland security chamber. we explained the situation to general michelle flynflam and her deputy, rogita stones.  

‘fake news’, shouted general flynflam. ‘you wee-toos are all socialists.  this is a plot to take over the colony.’

‘what is in it for us’, interjected rogita stones. ’we are getting rich here.  we are at the center of colony power.’

general flynflam interrupted, ‘you sisters need to take your socialist gasters out of my site or we will lock you up.’

at this point, rogita stones started chanting, ‘lock them up, lock them up.’  as she chanted, her gaster pulsated, causing a giant tattoo of a worm to writhe. the worm was the notorious feniseca tarquinius, the carnivorous caterpillar brought into the colony by corrupt aphid herders.  the caterpillar devoured hundreds of nymphs before the plot was discovered and the traitorous aphid herders dismembered.  the caterpillar, however, escaped and metamorphized into a butterfly.  

rogita stones twisted her gaster around so we could see the tattoo of the disgusting carnivorous worm.  ‘our god,’ she said, and spat a wad of beetle juice at us.  

revolted, we retreated to conspire. ‘we don’t have time to take them to court’, i said. 

‘agreed, we need direct action now,’ said nan. ‘we will create a kerfuffle in the nursery and carry off our eggs.’

‘ok’, i said. ‘i will get a potent colony pheromone from the queen so we can lay down a path to the bird bath. see you there.’  we strode off in different directions with determination in our hearts.   

nan pelosis recruited councilor kom-millie hairliss. councilor hairliss is the chief civil liberties lawyer for the colony. she enforces laws that keep emergent drones from performing disgusting acts in public, like gaster-scratching and spitting.  she also regulates how many drones are produced – just enough to add interest but not too many so as to give listless, lazy, laggard males delusions of dominance.  kom-millie hairliss-the-enforcer suffers no fools. hairliss and pelosis were confronted by a stiff-legged guard at the nursery entrance.  

‘vot you vant’, commanded a skinny cadaveresque ant whose eyes were turning white. 

‘since when is there a guard at the nursery.  who are you.  we are here to rescue the eggs.  let us pass,’ pelosis and hairliss demanded.  

‘i am stephanie mill-liar, with a hyphen, taking charge of genetic purity.  all eggs locked up and larvae in cages.  keeping larvae and eggs safe.  not allowing slimy socialists stories to pollute master race of ants. no keys, no entry.’

councilor hairliss was enraged, ‘listen mill-liar, you have no legal authority to cage larvae and eggs.  you cannot bar us from the nursery.  stand aside, you arrogant piss-ant.  let us pass’

mill-liar puffed herself up, ‘i know you two. you are the troublemakers that take away drone freedoms like scratching in public. you want in, sue me.’  then mill-liar began to shout, ‘help…socialist attack… arrest them.’

councilor hairliss, refusing to be scared by a stiff-legged, white-eyed, gaster-scratching termagant ant observed, ‘we don’t’ have time for law suits. we don’t have time for piss-ants. so here is our direct legal response.’  with that she rose up on four legs, reared back her head and thorax and shot her head forward toward mill-liar’s face, catapulting a ghastly gob of millipede goop onto mill-liar’s arrogant visage.  mill-liar stumbled backward under the force of her masticated legal challenge. 

Illustration 24: We don’t have time for piss-ants

councilor hairliss gave a war-whoop, ‘off the piss-ants.’  she and nan pelosis pushed passed the flummoxed gob-smacked stephanie mill-liar. they ran into the nursery shouting, ‘attention nurses, we are under attack.  gather eggs and follow us to safety.’  nurses rallied to the cause.  many recognized kom-millie and nan from the female self-actualization courses they taught.  they gathered up eggs and headed toward the exist, only to see it was blocked by mill-liar and a band of white-eyed thugs.  our heroinees’ antennae beat the retreat, ‘avast sisters.  to the fire exit.   quick.   run like tiger beetles.  grab our eggs and run.’  

nursery ants streamed out of the fire escape following nan pelosis.  they bore eggs in their front two legs. in their jaws, they held leaf fragments over their bodies to ward off the rain of spores.  this desperate exodus of formicidae refugees carried the next generation of the sweetgum log camponotus carpenter ants.  scrambling toward their destiny at the bird bath, they sang, ‘follow the pheromone trail’.  

meanwhile, i needed to see what help the queen could give us to start a new colony.  possibly she could come with us.  i enlisted the help of another wee-too sister, lizbith warwren.  she is an ant with a plan, descended from the comache camponotus clan which migrated east in dried buffalo skins.  she became locally famous for inventing a new economy for the former slaves of the strongylognathus slave-makers.  her spirit-name, warwren, means ‘little fighter with big songs’.  lizbith and i were stopped at the entrance to the royal egg-laying chamber by a big-headed ant with milky eyes and an arrogant frown.  she crouched on an enormous gaster.  we knew her.  this grouchy immovable fatness was named wilma barrstoole, the self-appointed fixer-to-the-queen.  she was feared by most of the department heads in the colony because of her tendency to lock up ants she didn’t like.  

‘let us pass. we need to see the queen. it’s an emergency,’ we demanded. 

barstool’s response was a gravelly croak, ‘no.’  

until now, it was normal that anyone could walk in and rub antennae with the queen.  after all, it is how her pheromones, and thus leadership, get spread throughout the colony. 

when we didn’t turn away, barrstoole ground out a rusty soliloquy, ‘nobody sees the queen unless i say.  she is the most powerful ant on the planet.  i am the most powerful fixer-to-the-queen. we are all-knowing, all-seeing, divine ants on a mission to make this colony the greatest most magnificent antdom ever. only the queen and her fixer-in-chief can do this.  i am the high priest of magnificence.  i know your kind. you are the kind of ants that foment socialist rebellion.  you should all be locked up.’

again, we hear the lock-up threat. we were losing patience.  we shouted, ‘there is an existential threat to the colony.  we need pheromones.  let us pass.  we have ant civil rights’

her magnificence notched up her croak, ‘you have no rights unless i say so. you want pheromones, here, take this.’ 

we watched barstoole, the magnificent fixer-in-chief, twist her gaster around her fat legs in an attempt to aim her sting in our direction.  lizbith boiled over and blurted out an acerbic jibe, ‘if you didn’t have such a big, bulging, bloated, blimpy, gross, lard-filled disgusting gaster, maybe that would be easier.’  

at this, barrstoole lunged, front legs grasping at lizbith, her antennae knocked lizbith backwards.  the lunge succeeded in wedging barrstoole sideways in the corridor.  she was impossibly stuck.  ‘quick, let’s use the security entrance,’ i said.  we ran along tunnels to the vertical entrance that accessed the queen’s chamber through a trap door in the floor.  

i eased the trap door open.  we stuck out our antennae.  a moldy fungal miasma assaulted our senses.  the reek of decay hung thick.  white cottony threads filled the chamber.  the queen lay collapsed, legs splayed, immobile. her eyes were flat white translucent orbs.  tiny mushrooms on long stalks sprouted from between her segments. she was wrapped in a cocoon of fungal hyphae. her body was black as a cricket. it seeped sticky stinking fluids.  eggs lay scattered in various stages of putrescence, some leaking fetid fluids.  we perceived all this in a brief second.  we recoiled and fled through the emergency exit tunnel.  

our queen was feeding the fungus, guarded by a fat fixer stuck in a tunnel.  the horrible scene from which we had just escaped brought on a wave of nausea.  we regurgitated the last day’s pill bugs.  we were on our own now.  this realization and loss of our lunch made us light-headed.  our fates were in our own hands, guided by doctor fauchietta’s science.  

outside, we found a ragged line of nurses. burdened with pearly white eggs, they were winding their way among twigs and grasses toward the bird bath.  they were holding leaf fragments over their heads at first, then abandoned them as they emerged from the bane of skylarking infected ants.  relieved of their umbrellas, the procession moved faster.  we found nan pelosis and kom-millie hairliss in the melee of refugees.  kom-millie climbed a grass plant. she waved her antennae to pick up the scent of water. then she pointed three legs in the direction of an enormous white edifice you call a bird bath.  nan pelosis marched off in the indicated direction, laying down a pheromone path which the egg-bearers followed.  that is how we found the bird bath in your yard.

this goal-oriented march was different than the random walk that your homo sapiens entomologists associate with ant foraging.  it is an emergent behavior brought on by the exigencies of survival during a cosmic crisis.  watching, i was proud of our leading sisters.  if we survive, this behavior will be highly advantageous.  i had a revelation, ‘i need to figure out how to make them queens so they can pass on their genetic aptitude for intelligent foraging.’  but i digress. 

when we arrived at the bird bath, lizbith warwren and i related the tragedy of the queen chamber.  there would be no pheromones and no rescue for any of the other colony ants. for now, it was imperative we all climb the bird bath and wash off spores we may have carried from the colony.  the bath revived our spirits.  we are females so we value cleanliness.  most of us are nurses anyway.  we splashed.  we tossed eggs back and forth.  boss, this was probably the first time in 168 million years that ants have actually played.  but now it was time to get serious.  

Illustration 25: The first time in 168 million years that ants have actually played

we needed to rebuild the colony.  nan pelosis, kom-millie hairliss, lizbith warwren and i assumed leadership of our band of refugees.  we numbered about a hundred souls with several hundred eggs. we needed a queen to splash around pheromones that would bind us together and regulate our behavior.  we needed to choose a drone.  we needed to find a rotten log and rebuild a home.  each of us had ideas as to style and decorations.  we committed to build back better.  before we started, however, we needed rules to keep us safe from the fungus.  we found doctor antoinette fauchietta at the edge of the group.  she was weak with milky spots in her eyes.  her legs were stiff.  we could see she was in the thrall of the deadly fungus.  she could barely communicate.  

‘doctor fauchietta’, i said, ‘tell us how to deal with this fungus so it doesn’t happen again.  but dear doctor, you look sick. what can we do for you.’

the doctor replied, ‘i am dying. the psilocybin is taking over. i will give you my final advice.’  

‘oh no.  what are we going to do without you,’ we whimpered.

‘sisters, there is no cure.  watch closely for aberrant behavior.  that is the psilocybin taking over.  it happens even before lenses in the eyes turn white.  any ant under the influence of psilocybin needs to be taken out of the colony and buried before she can skylark and spread sickening spores.  no one is immune.  this is the inexorable requirement of science-based public health.  it is all we can do.  remember it well.  it applies to everyone.  no exceptions.’

we were stunned.  our antennae drooped.  we stared at the dying doctor fauchietta, who was responsible for saving our colony, as the awful awareness of what we had to do dawned on the four of us.  

doctor fauchietta spoke softly, ‘you need to … you must … drag me off and bury me… now … before i sprout fruiting bodies …  then wash yourselves …  remember my advice … i hope you survive.’

with that, doctor fauchietta, our beloved and trusted colony doctor, limped stiff-legged through the grass.  the four of us dug a trench.  with what little control she still had of her muscles, she laid down and curled up.  she tried to draw in her legs, but they twitched.  she finally gave up.  we buried her.  ants are not known for emotions, but we do have them and mine erupted in a tsunami of grief.  sad and shaking, i stood on doctor antoinette fauchietta’s burial mound and eulogized.  

‘here lies the good doctor antoinette fauchietta. in the best tradition of the formicidae class she gave every molecule of her being to save our eusocial colony.  she will be remembered in our genes.  she will permeate our thoughts every time we face danger and infection.  our progeny owes her its very existence.  here lies a true heroine.’  i wandered off in a daze.   

in the days that followed, the four of us elected kom-millie hairliss to be our new queen.  we found an old log and carved out the beginnings of a new home.  we built back better. we decorated.  the eggs began to hatch. a few were males from which we selected a suitable drone.  we sent kom-millie and him on a date.  she is now contemplating queenhood.  in the past week, we have had to enforce doctor fauchietta’s rules only a few times.  it was hard.  it was heartbreaking.  but we did it. 

boss, please do us a favor.  find our old colony site under the rotting sweetgum log in the woods.  you will see thousands of carpenter ants, festooned with mushrooms, hanging from the understory.  would you please spray some pesticides around just to make sure no left-behinds survive to spread the disease back to us.  you know i don’t approve of pesticides, but in this case, it would be merciful and justified.  consider it a symbiosis between our two species.  we benefit from your horrible technology. you get recycled logs in the woods. and don’t forget you have become famous by publishing reports from the only literate carpenter ant on the planet.

in exchange for your extermination service, i will give you some advice based on our recent crisis.  i start by quoting a few sentences i found online from a recent book, ‘tales from the ant world’, by your celebrated ant guru, professor e.o. wilson.  in the second sentence of chapter one he states, ‘there is nothing i can even imagine in the lives of ants that we can or should emulate for our own moral betterment.’  later he states, ‘ants are easily fooled. they are, after all, only insects, which live by easily exploited instincts.’  

as to whose morals to emulate, let me reflect. the infection of corruption and power-lust was more dangerous to us than the fungus because it made us victims of the fungus. but i am living proof that you cannot fool all the ants all the time.  

boss, your colony is now experiencing wave after wave of a virus attack. before your species embarks on a moral bender, you should ask how many of your leaders are telling easily-fooled humans to do stupid things.  is it possible that homo sapiens’ has ‘easily exploited instincts’.

maybe your virus will teach humans an appreciation of science and nature.  maybe ants will get the respect we deserve. is that too much to hope.  

with respect for evolution, 


cindi camponotus, 

official holly point farm investigative reporter