King Solomon taught the people the wisdom of God revealed in the creation. “And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes” (I Kings 4:33). In previous articles we have examined some of those creatures, from the enormous blue whale in the sea to the tiny hummingbird of the air. Our focus has been on some of the amazing physical traits of these organisms and how God providentially supplies them with what they need to serve Him. In addition we have tried, as the wise King Solomon did, to speak a bit about the glory of God revealed in those creatures and what spiritual truths they lead us to contemplate.
Creeping Things: Everything for the Colony
What of the glory of God can be seen in the realm of the creeping things? What does God teach us with creatures such as spiders, ants, locusts, roaches, beetles, and bugs? Though we may have a tendency to think of the place of creeping things as being at the bottom of our swatter or shoe, we ought to remember that they too have an important place and part within the organic unity of the creation. (Apart from the fact that sometimes these creatures particularly show us the effects of sin—devastation and corruption—there is much else we can learn from a study of these tiny creatures.) These creatures, which be little upon the earth, do have a positive role in the creation and are called to bring forth the praises of God, as much as the other, so-called, more glorious creatures.
Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons, and all deeps: Fire, and hail; snow and vapour; stormy wind fulfilling his word: Mountains, and all hills; fruitful trees, and all cedars: Beasts, and all cattle; creeping things, and flying fowl: Kings of the earth, and all people; princes, and all judges of the earth: Both young men, and maidens; old men, and children: Let them praise the name of the Lord: for his name alone is excellent; his glory is above the earth and heaven,
Ps. 148:7-13.Truly, we can learn much from the study of the creeping things. The social insects, such as bees, wasps, and ants, in particular, show us God’s wise design in teaching us how to work diligently and cooperatively for the needs of the whole.
Although honeybees have been well studied and have long been known for their cooperative behavior, one relatively recent and quite fascinating discovery is that honeybees cooperatively maintain their hive temperature—all year long. Honeybees, in fact, are the only known insects in the Northern Hemisphere that keep themselves active and warm throughout the winter. Amazingly, honeybees keep the hive temperature at a constant 36Â°C (approximately 97Â°F) all winter long, even when the temperature dips to the nostril tingling -40Â°C (also -40Â°F; the two temperature scales cross at this frigid temperature). They accomplish this amazing feat with the heat generated by their own metabolism (eating and “burning” the honey they made all summer long) and by shivering (contracting their “flight” muscles without moving their wings).
As the temperature in the hive drops due to winter weather, the honeybees group closer together into a cluster. The bees at the center of the cluster are well warmed by the metabolic heat of each neighboring bee. But the exterior or mantle bees of the cluster have fewer neighboring bees and therefore get colder. Consequently, the mantle bees keep warm by shivering. This cooperative effort is far more efficient than to have each honeybee keep warm on its own, because shivering uses up a tremendous amount of energy. If every bee needed to shiver to keep warm, too much of the food supply would be consumed by the bees during the winter months, putting the entire colony at risk of starvation. However, if the honeybees huddle together into a cluster, the inner-core bees will be kept warm by their collective heat and only the mantle bees will need to shiver in order to keep warm. In this way they preserve much needed food and energy.
This climate-controlled environment is not coordinated by the queen, or by chemical messages sent from bee to bee. Rather, each honeybee strives to maintain its own temperature and does so cooperatively with the other members of the colony in order to accomplish the task in the most energy-efficient manner. Here we see that the individual bees’ labors are done for the benefit of the whole, so that the hive is maintained.¹
“Co-op Farming” Ants
Ants are also a well-studied social insect. One particular study of the grass-cutter ants of Argentina is intriguing. This study revealed that a specific group of ants had created a massive underground colony, equipped even with ‘chimneys’ to release the carbondioxide produced from their fungus gardens. This particular colony of ants, numbering at least five million, moved approximately 40 tons of soil to create the complex labyrinth of tunnels of their colony (that’s the weight of about nine adult elephants). In constructing their colony, they had tunneled more than twenty-five feet underground. Fascinatingly, the grass-cutter ants harvest grass—but cannot digest it. Rather than eat the harvested grass, the ants take the grass to their underground colony, where it is used to produce a fungus. It is the fungus that the ants eat. A single colony of grass-cutter ants diligently harvests approximately one-half ton of grass each year to be used in the production of their fungus gardens. Though “the ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer” (Prov. 30:25). These ants clearly demonstrate what it means to ‘work.’
In addition, the ants illustrate another important and exceeding wise attribute. They do not construct the tunnels and fungus gardens alone. It takes teamwork to build such an organized underground structure. In addition, their cooperative labors are illustrated by the way in which each kind of grass-cutter ant labors in its own unique calling. For example, one kind or one social class of the grass-cutter ants in the colony does the work of a “lawn-mower.” These grass-cutter ants have been equipped by God with powerful cutters that vibrate 1,000 times a second to cut the grass. All day long these ants “merely” cut grass—performing their calling diligently, faithfully utilizing their unique cutters. The grass clippings fall to the ground, where another kind or social-class of ants (the “porters”) carries these relatively massive clippings back to the colony. All day long these porters make journey after journey, delivering needed grass to the colony. Whether it be the “cutters” or the “porters” or any other social-class ant of the colony, they all constantly and diligently work—each at his specific task. It is a highly structured and organized affair. And for what purpose do these ants work? Certainly there is no profit in their labors if the labors are not done for the sake of the colony. Each ant does its task (without any guide, overseer, or ruler) and only its task. As each ant does its task faithfully, the entire colony—and consequently, the individual ant as well—benefits.²
Little upon the Earth, but Exceeding Wise
The most elegant book of creation is given to us by God to teach us of His power and Godhead. And when seen in the light of God’s Word, these little, tangible “creeping things” lead us to contemplate important spiritual truths. The honeybee and the ant, though they are little upon the Earth, are exceeding wise. The great wisdom illustrated by both the honeybee and the ant is their diligent and cooperative labors.
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest” (Prov. 6:6-8). There is little doubt that Scripture, in this passage among others, teaches us to be diligent in our work. The sluggard is commanded to consider the ways of the ant. Our natures are inclined to be sluggard-like—whether in our physical labors or in our spiritual life. But we are commanded to be diligent— diligent in our daily labors and diligent to grow spiritually. We daily face a difficult struggle to fight with our sluggardly nature. But by the grace of God we grow to be more faithful and zealous for the work that God places before us, learning to do whatsoever we do heartily, as unto the Lord (Col. 3:23).
But our diligent and zealous labor may not be done with selfish motives, but for the sake of others. The social insects, as they work cooperatively, illustrate to us the important truth of the organic relationships God has created. Creation is organic—inter-connected and inter-dependent (a truth, by the way, that the church has known since its infancy—long before there were ‘environmentalists’). All the creatures must live in harmony and order for the well-being of the whole. Similarly, the church is an organic body of believers; that is, we are ‘living’ and we are an inter-connected ‘body.’ Never must we forget this. Our sinful natures are not only inclined to be ‘sluggardly,’ but we also tend to be individualistic and to shun the calling we have towards the other members of the body of Christ.
For example, we have a calling as members of a congregation to visit the sick and elderly, to help one another in times of need, and to see that the covenant seed are instructed. We must abound in these good works. Failure to do so harms the Body. If we neglect our personal devotions, not only will we personally suffer from a lack of spiritual growth, but we also harm the Body, as we are not equipped to speak a word in season to a fellow saint.
Elders and deacons, fathers and mothers, school board members, and other committee members, not to mention school society members (let no one minimize the great importance of active membership in our school societies)—we all give of our time and energies diligently and without complaint for the needs of the body. As children in a classroom, we learn together. Our good behavior and participation are necessary for the benefit of the class. Failure to behave appropriately and participate hurts the education of the body. We must learn, by the grace of God, that whether we be part of a family, school, or congregation, our life in those cooperative bodies is emphatically not first of all about what is most convenient for me as an individual, but what is most beneficial for the whole body.
To neglect the body to which we belong is by the very definition of a body to neglect ourselves. Only by God’s grace do we begin to labor for the benefit of the whole. Thanks be to God for the work of the Spirit of Christ in our hearts that directs us to “go to the ant.” These little, but exceeding wise, creatures of God are used by Him to remind us of our calling to work—utilizing our gifts and talents for the advantage and salvation of the other members (Q/A 55 of Heidelberg Catechism).
¹ The interested reader may want to read more details of the honeybee and other fascinating stories in The ingenuity of animal survival: Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich, 2003, HarperCollins, NY.
² The interested reader who may also want to learn more about the grass-cutter ants would benefit from the following videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQERRbU23bU and http://videosift.com/video/Leaf-cutter-ants-grass-scene-from-Life-Insects-episode-6