Argentine ants, or Linepithema humile, came from Argentina in the late nineteenth century by boat. They arrived in San Francisco in 1905, probably by train or truck from Los Angeles. In 2016, it's likely that there are 1.6 billion Argentine ants in San Francisco. Over 100 generations of Argentine ants have called San Francisco their home.
The Port of Rosario, Argentina, 1868
Berkeley scientist Neil Tsutsui led a team that sequenced the DNA of California's Argentine ant. Genetic analysis and comparisons to ants in Argentina revealed that San Francisco's L. humile population originated in the area around Argentina's port of Rosario, the nation's biggest port in the nineteenth century. Workers and queens hitched rides on produce, or in cargo containers, and arrived at the port of New Orleans.
This photograph of the port comes from the Roberto Ferrari collection.
San Francisco train station, early 1900s
Argentine ants hitched a ride to San Francisco from Los Angeles, where they arrived by train. This photograph is of one of San Francisco's earliest train stations, in the Mission.
When scientists discovered that Argentine ants were creating massive works of symbolic art using pheromone trails, they immediately set to work trying to translate them. The art works, called insect geoglyphs, were a kind of language. Next, scientists worked on a way to communicate with the ants, using synthetic pheromones. Within months, they learned that the ants had never realized that humans were intelligent.
This illustration was made by the artist Mozchops, an ant rights sympathizer.
Illustration by Mozchops
Ant Rights Movement
In the early 2030s, the debate over Argentine ant rights escalated into violence. Humans tried new poisons to drive the ants out, and enlisted the aid of police to drive them out of residential areas.
Then the Argentine ants of San Francisco staged a protest called Occupy Police. They didn't just occupy City Hall, though they did that. They also occupied the officers on duty, crawling into their ears, noses, and clothing. They refused to leave until the Board of Supervisors agreed to meet with them. All they asked for was the right to occupy their homes, without being poisoned.
Throughout this process, biologists have asked the Argentine ants whether there are other ant species we should communicate with as well. Their answer has always been an unequivocal "no." They believe that all other ant species are unintelligent, incapable of using language. So far, scientists have been unable to disprove their assertion.
A turning point in the fight for ant rights came during a 2037 protest at City Hall, where Argentine ants and their human sympathizers called for ants to be given the same rights as people. When police marched on the humans, the ants swarmed the officers, covering their bodies and crawling inside their noses. Immobilized, the police gave way before the protesters.
The Board of Supervisors agreed to set up a group, known as the Independent Science Committee, to deal with the Argentine ant issue.
They issued a brief statement:
We are in negotiations now with a group of ants who claim to represent the united colonies of San Francisco, and a number of scientists who are translating their demands. For now, we are not going to poison or otherwise harm the millions of ants currently filling the atrium in City Hall. We hope to have a resolution within the week.
Street protests and wheatpaste campaigns pushed for the ants to be driven out of San Francisco. Anti-ant protesters saw the ants as a threat to the environment and human health. If they ants could communicate with humans, the anti-ant protesters reasoned, they could certainly be told to leave. If they didn't leave, then humans had every right to start poisoning them.