The Ant-lion

While The Big Five may be The Big Goal while on safari, there’s also The Little Five you can watch for: Rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and the ant-lion. But you don’t have to go to Africa to see them all.

When I was growing up in Jamaica we used to have a tiny insect that made a sand pit.  I have a vague recollection of singing a chant that had the word “Mammy” in it, but I can’t quite grasp the memory and bring it into focus. Imagine my surprise when I looked down and saw the exact same configurations in the dirt outside of our safari tent.

Turns out this pit belongs to the Ant-lion. The larvae of a lacewing, the ant-lion is sometimes called a doodlebug. The little critter sits motionless at the bottom of the pit with its body concealed in the sand. When an insect, like an ant, slips over the edge of the pit and slides down, the ant-lion closes its formidable jaws around it.

But it isn’t all successful chomping for the ant-lion. Those conical pits are delicate. The wind can do them in. A rainfall can do them in. Passing footsteps of man and beast alike can do them in. And yet they persist, laying out effort in the hope of reward. It is the opportunity for reward that keeps them building and rebuilding their conical traps.

The opportunity for reward.

Most of us don’t spend much time considering the opportunity for reward in light of the risk. Sure, we hear all bout investing and how important it is to make our money grow. But many of us have little sense of the balance we must find between the risk we’ll assume and the opportunity for reward.

The very idea that we stand a good chance of losing our money – of our conical trap being destroyed – hardly every comes up when we’re being shown the average rates of return on a mutual fund. And the idea that we may have to start again from scratch to rebuild in the hope of capturing a treasure – lunch or 12% return on our investment – is spoken of only briefly and in hushed tones.

As with everything in life, you can take a big chance for the opportunity at a big reward, or you can plod along slowly and steadily sure that what you have is safe and sound. You can’t have both.

One of the questions I get most often is, “How can I make more than the sad interest rate currently being paid on my money.” My response is usually to ask the question, “How much risk are you prepared to take?”

“Risk? Oh I don’t want to lose my money.”

“There you have it then, you can’t make more return if you’re not prepared to take on more risk. The two go hand in hand.”

You have to choose. Do you want to keep your money safe and sound? Then you’ll have to settle for the low returns safe and sound investments offer. Do you want to earn more return on your money? Then you’ll have to take on some of the risk more return has attached.

You can be like the lion-ant, seeking out the opportunity for a scrumptious lunch of ant or spider, but willing to start again if the whole cone gets washed away. Or not. But you can’t have both.

7 Responses to “The Ant-lion”

  1. I have some of my money in high risk funds, and some in very low risk. But I had to decide the amounts in each.

  2. Refocus your concern from short term rates of return over to long term rates of return – start being concerned about earning enough over 10,20, or 30 years instead of this year. When you focus on what you need to do to earn strong rates of return over the long term, fluctuating rates of return over the short term become inconsequential and insignificant. There are absolutely strategies that can reduce and even take advantage of these short term ups and downs.

    In other words, develop a long term plan that expects and takes into account year over year ups and downs.

    (for an example of things that reduce ups and downs, look into ‘rebalancing’. Also, you can save into multiple types of investments – investments that are negatively correlated. That means that when one investment comes crashing down, the other goes up. A bit of both means your overall investment won’t grow as fast, but won’t crash as hard either.)

  3. I find that many people who say they want their money ‘safe and sound’ truly don’t understand how inflation is a real danger too. They think that earning 1.3% interest when inflation is running at 1.3% somehow puts them ahead, when in fact they’re returning 0.00%.

  4. PS Gail –

    Antigua and Barbuda
    In Antigua and Barbuda, an island country in the East West Indies, an antlion is called “jampeepee” (or “John-pee-pee”). This Caribbean English colloquialism appears in an antlion charm:

    Jam-pee-pee! Jam-pee-pee!
    Mammy call you for funjee and saltfish.

    As with U.S. charms, this charm is spoken while lightly twirling a stick along the edges of the sandy pit to entice the antlion to come out. Antiguan resident Anthony Richards explains that, according to local folklore, this charm also “whets the insect’s appetite for our national dish, since it immediately responds with flicks of sand. Funjee is a starchy food made of corn meal, not unlike Italian polenta. It is served with a Creole stew made from tomatoes, onions, and rehydrated salted cod (the bacalao of Portugal and Brazil). These excellent foods, made from ingredients first imported to feed to our slave ancestors, now have pride of place on hotel menus. We look forward to sharing them with you, and with Mr John-pee-pee!”

  5. People just need to redefine what they see as risk.

  6. UGH! Life just happened again. The proverbial TRUCK just ran over my budget equation! I better make like the ant-lion and start diggin’ again…(grumble, grumble…)

    Lucky I’ve got an ant-pile built up until the pit’s working again…

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