IT was a text message consisting of just four words.
Yet instantly I knew my girlfriend was stood trembling in the street, paralysed by panic.
“Flying ants,” she texted – followed by an expletive of Germanic origin and the name of a hot place where evil souls suffer for eternity.
Steph, you see, has a pathological fear of ants. She can’t even utter the word, referring to them as ‘bad things’.
We live in the heart of an urban area and rarely see these most social of insects.
But in the summer winged and female ants leave the nest to mate and establish new colonies. So even in this sanctuary of concrete and glass there’s no escape from their seasonal roaming.
To Steph, being trapped in a swarm of ants would be worse than dying. Had a bin lorry or septic tank been in the vicinity, she may have dived in to avoid those harmless little creatures.
I don’t mind ants as long as they keep clear of my trousers. Their collective intelligence, which is found in bees and birds to name but a few species, I find quite admirable.
There’s no real logic to Steph’s phobia. While tropical army ants have a fearsome reputation, the kind you find in Britain are unlikely to threaten anything larger than a caterpillar.
But I empathise with Steph. The fact her fear has a proper scientific name (myrmecophobia) shows she’s not alone.
Besides, I’ve inherited a pathological hatred of worms (scoleciphobia) from my mum. This is a shame because earthworms are benign invertebrates. Without them the soil would be infertile and plants wouldn’t grow. But mum and I can’t stand the sight of them. The very thought of the them – even the word ‘worm’ – makes us feel nauseous.
It’s probably, alongside my chronic impatience and dislike of getting dirty, why I’ll never make a good gardener. It is, like my other half’s fear, totally irrational. Nobody has ever been killed by earthworms. They have the courtesy to wait until you’re dead before they feast on your flesh.
Murophobia (the fear of rats or mice) is one of the most common phobias. But personally, I quite like rats. With their sparkly eyes and miniature whiskers I think they’re rather endearing. And they’re cleaner than conventional knowledge would have you believe – certainly far cleaner than the disease ridden pigeons that infest built-up areas.
Rats are also highly intelligent creatures who have thrived on their adaptability.
In short, rats have a lot going for them and I’d happily shake hands with one if rodents understood that a handshake was a friendly gesture.
I can, however, understand why people hate them, particularly when they’re in your kitchen eating your food and relieving themselves on your work tops. It’s a pity that mice are incontinent, otherwise I’d like them too.
It’s odd that plenty of people fear spiders (arachnophobia) but few fear house flies. Spiders, in this country anyway, are beneficial while flies, which our eight-legged friends consume, are filthy, revolting creatures. I was rather pleased when I first found a spider in my flat. Hopefully it’ll eat the insecticide resistant green flies which have been slowly killing my house plants.
That said, it’s entirely rational to be scared if you were sat on the toilet and a black widow began crawling up you leg.
Phobias are, by their nature, illogical. A spectrophobe is somebody who is frightened by mirrors or their own reflection. A colleague of mine is frightened of long hair although I haven’t found a word for that phobia yet.
So where do these irrational fears stem from? Some say they’re caused by a traumatic experience in early life.
Whatever the cause, spare a thought next time your friend or relative starts freaking out in the presence of something innocuous.
It might sound hilarious to expose your friends to something they fear – the gross-out TV comedy Jackass has a lot to answer for – but it’s plain cruel.
I know if I brought ants into our flat as a joke I’d be leaving with a black eye via the second floor window. And with my acrophobia (hatred of heights), that is something to fear.