Sunday, 1 May 2011

Formidable Formicidae

I am writing this in some considerable discomfort due to the intrusion of nature into my comfortable world.

Red ants bite. Or do they sting? I am not sure which it is. Or perhaps it is both.
I have poked them, in far-off distant days of childhood summers, with those stalks of grass which if pulled, can be extracted, white and soft from the cylindrical outer leaves.The definitely bite. I have seen their fearsome laterally-hinged mandibles opening menacingly and closing tenaciously on the grass stalks. I can imagine just how formidable these must be if you are about ant sized. Indeed, the etymology of the word ant appears to point to an origin in ancient Germanic "amaitjo" meaning "biter".
That they sting is alluded to by the fact that as kids running about in the forests of Gloucestershire, we would sometimes find rock ants nests, usually holes in the limestone in some bank, and poke in late flowering bluebells to annoy them. The colour of the flower would take on a pinkish hue as the ants, nasty creatures about a centimetre long, would set about it roundly, attacking with abdominal contortions. This was obviously an early experiment with chemical indicators for us, though the mechanism was not explained to me until some years later when learning the explanation of pH in A level chemistry.

Anyway, ants are formidable as I have discovered to my cost.
Finally resolving to rid the allotment of ten years of lazily applied carpet mulch, I disturbed a red ants' nest at the lower end under the hawthorn tree. Their outraged presence was made immediately apparent to me by the sudden fiery stinging on my left ankle. I looked down to see it encircled by a garland of quite cross red ants, all intent on sinking their jaws into my skin. There were dozens, possibly hundreds of them swarming around the unfeasible knobblyness that characterises my ankle bones, and in answer to my uncertainty about their means of attack, I could see them stabbing their abdomens into my epidermis whilst gripping tightly with their mandibles. I brushed them off roughly and fully expected the stinging to subside in a few moments. It did not. Indeed, a day later and it still hurts, with the additional bruised sensation underlying it as if I had been struck repeatedly on the ankle bone with a small metal hammer some days earlier.

This must have been some potent chemical weapon! That a relatively small number of tiny insects should inject what is basically the simplest organic acid possible in microgramme quantities and render a huge beast such as myself in some considerable discomfort smacks of some impressive efficacy.

So I sit here contemplating my elephantine ankle, smeared with antihistamine and elevated on several cushions on a coffee table. Being immobile forces me into sedentary lassitude and I suppose I am to some extent grateful for the prod towards this, my first attempt to string words together for several months.

I am struck with a thought: In the allotment, in the area of the accursed red ants' nest, are several other ants nests. Ants seem to come in various colours, or rather, a variety of two distinct variants (leaving aside those scary monster ants i used to see in the forest as a kid which are much bigger but not often seen outside of very rural areas).
There are black ants, which are generally about six or seven millimetres long and usually all about the same colour. There is also a myriad of "red" ants, none of which, to my knowledge, are actually red, varying as they do from a yellowy-orange to a dark brown.
This latter group however, has one feature their darker cousins lack, their aforementioned aggressive mode of attack. Ok, I do know that the black ones bite. I have felt the nip of the occasionally miffed black ant and it seems altogether more of an admonishment than an assault. But the red ones, they mean business. They really set about you with spite and malice.
And it is this malice I rue right now.

But my thought: Oh yes. I remember now. If the red ants are so pugnacious and offensively equipped, why are there still black ants? Surely coldly indifferent nature must have favoured the more hostile species. I cannot imagine for one moment that any conflict between adjacent colonies of red and black ants would hold any hope for a black-ant victory.
And yet, both exist. Why?
Could it be that they have different dietary requirements?
No. It seems not, in fact. They seem to eat pretty much the same things. I have seen both lots carrying off dismembered insects and whole caterpillars. So somehow, they must coexist by colonising only the space that they require and not infringing on the areas inhabited by other ants.
None of this, of course, helps with my poorly ankles.

But it does give me introspection on these creatures of which, my research informs me, there are an estimated 22000 species worldwide, ranging from 0.75mm long to an terrifying 52mm. The most painful bite is from the Bullet Ant whose bite, eponymously, is said to resemble the pain felt when shot by a bullet. It is, on the international scale of pain, right up there at the top, presumable with a smite from a fluffy feather duster at the opposing end.

For those of a new-age naturalistic bent, I may point out that many ant species attack and invade other colonies in order to steal eggs and larvae to raise as slaves in their own nest. I am sure this is not malevolence on their part, but it hardly propagates the ideal of the harmonious balance of nature, as if a ten minute viewing of any David Attenborough programme would not make this abundantly clear.

Indeed, looking at the little creatures, I wonder if they are in fact mere automata. They have a cluster of a few million neurons and all look remarkably identical. Perhaps they are just tiny machines, programmed with all the information and behavioural patterns that they need, responding to stimuli with a limited set of reactions.

But no, some ants have been observed in the act of interactive teaching: A mentor ant will take a novice ant out foraging and will lead it to food, taking great pains to ensure the novice isnt left behind and keeps up.

So, all in all, I wonder why ants do not rule the world. They are immune to the ravages of radioactivity, they can eat pretty much anything, learn and defend themselves viciously, as my lower legs attest. In fact, perhaps they do and we just havent realised.

Perhaps I will give them a little more respect next time I lift a slab to discover their little city bustling underneath. And I will resolve to wear long socks and trousers in the allotment in future.

1 comment:

Librarian said...

They do rule the world. They just do it in a way that most of the time does not interfere with our activities too much - until you ask someone who has or had their house infested by them.
Gute Besserung for your poor ankle!