Ants most f-ant-astic !
Common insects with unique capabilities, ants as we know them now evolved from vespoid wasp ancestors in the Cretaceous period. They live in highly organized colonies and are found almost everywhere on earth.
Forward march! One, two, one, two…
You can well imagine the leader ant calling out and the rest of the worker ants following her in the most orderly manner, as they lug a dead beetle, much larger than them, to their nest. The leader leaves behind a trail of scent – pheromones, which the rest of the workers pick up using their sensitive antennae and manage to follow in the right direction, without being dependent on their eyesight a lot.
Indeed, we can learn a lot from these six-legged social insects that coordinate with each other so well and live in such harmony. They are nature’s superb decomposers, recyclers, engineers, architects, and even invaders that have been around on our planet for almost 130 million years!
Their homes, for instance, are superbly designed, leaving our architects in awe. Different species design different complexes. If it was possible to enter the rosette-like nests of the harvester ants, you would be intrigued by their underground chambers that are as deep as two metres. The nest is wisely made on a slope to avoid rainwater logging within the chambers. Inside, there are gardener ants, cultivating fungal gardens out of the grain that they collect, chew, and mix with their saliva. This fungus, supposedly nutritious baby food, is fed to the young grubs.
Besides gardeners, some ants act as cattle herders who take upon themselves the job of looking after plant pests such as aphids and mealybugs. They defend from predators and herd them to the tender shoots so that they get the best meals. Buts ants do not seem to believe in charity. In return for this favour they demand a reward. By tapping their antennae on the aphids or mealybugs’ abdomen, they stimulate the production of a sweet, irresistible liquid which is simply lapped up – just like a farmer milking his cow.
Farmer Ant Milking Aphid
Ant societies are not all peace-loving. One colony of ants can do mean things like making slaves of the larvae of another colony. They invade the colony of the hapless ants that are not able to retaliate and ruthlessly slice them into pieces with their razor-sharp mandibles.
The attackers plunder the colony, carrying back food as well as the larvae of the victims. The latter grow up to be slaves to the invaders, serving them hand and foot, feeding them the very food that had been stocked by their industrious parents and stolen by the plunderers. Their masters, you see, are helpless without the slaves and are not capable of feeding themselves at all.
But the terrors among ants are the notorious army ants. The soldiers among them have large heads and enormous mandibles. They seem to have nothing other than murder on their minds, killing everything that cannot escape – birds, lizards, insects… When the marching army comes across any hurdle, some workers align their bodies, locking limbs, to make a living bridge for their soldiers to march over – a lesson in self-sacrifice.
But there is yet another species of ants, true martyrs. Their self-sacrificing role is simply flummoxing. These are the honeypot ants. Since honeydew, their favorite food which ants collect from certain plants, is not available all year round, some of their workers serve as living storage vessels – storing the excess in their bodies. These living honeypots become so swollen that they are unable to move and spend the rest of their lives clinging onto the ceiling of their nest, supplying precious fluid whenever other ants demand.
The above stories are just a peep into the intriguing lives of these wondrous insects. There is so much more that one could go on about and fill up volumes.
This article first appeared in the April 2015 edition of Saevus magazine