The Soldier Ant’s Tale

I’ve mentioned that my brother is a butterfly expert(in an amateur capacity) and that I grew up with the idea that creepycrawlies were not something to be feared (at least not if I wanted to be able to go to bed without finding one there!) but admired and studied. Some years ago on a visit, my brother suggested we visit a butterfly jungle establishment not that far from where he lives; it would be “educational” he said for our daughter, then aged about 10 or 11 and who was being educated at home (and that’s another story)

Well, it was a great trip. There was a bird of prey rescue and rehab centre as well as the butterfly house and a nature walk. They even had some rather nice ice creams. Part of the hothouse that housed the butterflies was given over to other less colourful insects, and by this time feeling I needed some alone time, I went over to watch the ant colony.

The colony was housed in rather an imaginative way. Instead of it being inside a great glass case, it was in the open. The ants lived on a great concrete mushroom, with such severely sloping sides that it was very hard(maybe impossible)for them to negotiate their way off their plateau and really, when the foraging area was across a rope bridge and on another huge concrete mushroom, there was no need to leave their land at all. So there was nothing but a rope fence between me and the ants; spaced about four feet away so visitors could see but not touch the ants.

Now I am not sure what species of ant they were but some sort of tropical breed where the usual workers were tiny and there were soldier ants a good six or so times the size of the workers. The workers made compost out of the leaves they brought back from the other island and grew a type of fungus which was a much desired foodstuff. The soldiers did guard duty, and presumably kept order and maybe in normal conditions they went on patrol. As you may be aware, despite Disney animated films, biologically speaking ants are not really individuals; they  are part of a collective consciousness that works for the colony. Each ant is a clone, I think and has no independent thought processes, needs or desires.  

Or so I believed.

I became very engrossed in watching the activity of the ants and as I did so I became also aware of the activities of certain individuals.You could follow a single ant with your eyes as it performed its tasks. After a while, I became aware of one soldier ant moving among the workers, approaching them and interacting by touching antennae with them and so on. It communicated with a few other soldiers but largely with the workers. There seemed to be a pattern to it; it was moving in the general direction of the edge of the plateau, stopping every few inches to touch and stroke the workers as it moved.

Now the concrete mushroom had a spoil heap below it where the ants threw their rubbish; spent compost, bits of leaf or twig too big to break down, dead ants and general detritus. A steady procession of workers moved across the “savannah” of emptyconcrete away from the centre of the colony’s “farm” bearing rubbish and throwing or dropping it over the edge of the mushroom. This was the direction my soldier ant was moving in, but as it reached the column of workers, it moved a little away from them, and didn’t interact with them.

I watched in astonishment as the soldier ant reached the edge of the plateau, paused for a second and then simply dropped over the edge. It fell silently to the spoil heap at the bottom and lay there utterly still. I watched for another half an hour and it didn’t move. It was dead. It had died on the edge and had simply let its body fall over.

I was astounded.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the actions of that ant. I know that anthropomorphism is the curse of the true scientist but what I had watched seemed very much like a creature bidding farewell to selected friends and going to its death, taking its own much larger body all that way, knowing it was at the end of its life and wanting to save its friends and comrades the significant effort of carrying its body all the way to the disposal point.

This year I became a beekeeper. Bees, like ants, are social insects, working for the good of a whole colony and not for the individual. The single bee is not considered important at all ; and yet, I know of beekeepers, good ole boys, who’ve kept bees for more than fifty years, who will pick up on a finger a bee that arrives so laden with pollen it is exhausted and cannto fly any further, and deliver it to the hive entrance to be relieved of its burden by waiting bees so it can fly off again. One single bee and the old beekeepers will still help it. Other beekeepers are more robust: “They’re just insects! ” they’ll say dismissively. And yet, the chief beekeeper in our area says things like, “They’re lovely little ladies; if you take care of them, they’ll take care of you!”     

We use the term ANT often to convey extreme smallness and insignificance in the universe; and to convey mindlessness and an extreme form of communism where the individual is entirely subsumed in the colony’s needs.

I wonder now if ANY of that is really true.

11 thoughts on “The Soldier Ant’s Tale

    • I’m glad that it came across because that’s what I saw. I wished there had been someone else watching to verify that I wasn’t seeing things that weren’t there. I know some of this is about interpretation but that said, the whole series of events seems to point to a conclusion that is quite thought provoking whichever way you go…


  1. Your story of the noble soldier ant goes a long way as allegory to disabusing us all of our convenient assumptions about the worlds of life around us that we have only begun to appreciate. I think it’s instructive that in the East, many movements in the martial arts (most notably, Tai Chi) are based on the movements of animals.

    Buddhists have an enduring appreciation for the sanctity of all life and the lessons that can be learned from all species if we look hard enough with an open mind and a sincere heart as you did the soldier ants. As I read the story, it struck me as having much in common with the language of dreams: rich in symbolism and archetypal patterns.

    Consider the act of the ant within the context of synchronicity: the soldier dragged himself to the brink and then simply let go of life after first making contact with his “mates”. The action happened at the precise moment you were looking. Putting aside any thought of coincidence, what does this meaningful intersection communicate?

    It is a psalm to comradeship, the strength and significance of the sangha (community), the fact that the significance of every individual is known always in the memory of those touched by his/her life, and the consciousness of the “greater good”, the “Over-Self,” and the meaning that comes from I/Thou vs I/It relationships.

    I always also like to place the timing of events involving such insight into the context of the life of the one being blessed with the sight to see it. So, when such events occur in my life or in the lives of people in my life and/or with whom I work, I ask: “What was happening in your own life at this precise time that the lesson of the soldier ant was given to you? What were you thinking in the moments just before you became aware of the ant’s movements?

    Thanks for sharing it.


    • I can’t remember what exactly was going on in either my mind or my life at the time, but guessing I would say I had been fretting about the apparent uselessness of my own existence (I do that a lot) and fretting equally about my own inability to find a meaningful way of making my mark on life.
      Interesting thoughts. Thank you.


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  3. I’m a hospice volunteer, and this story illuminates another world for me. Many clients rage against their impending death.
    Others are quite prepared for it.
    Thanks for sharing it.


  4. Hi Viv

    We must miss an incredible amount of wonderful mystical things in life. Our daily grind is so hectic that we seldom take time out to see – not just look. I like to think that the soldier ant was bidding farewell as he made his way to the ledge.

    Very different and more comical is this little story I’ve told very few people because I don’t think they’d believe me. I took my dogs for a walk in a local spinney. It was quiet and I was the only one there. One of my dogs runs around wildly, and the other has a penchant for staring up into trees looking for birds or squirrels. It saw a squirrel and followed it from the ground as it hopped around the branches. My dog barked with excitement and the squirrel made a jump towards the neighbouring tree. It mis-judged its jump and landed on my dog’s upturned face. My dog fell to its knees under the weight and the squirrel tore off up the bark of a tree.

    If I’d done my usual job of walking around with my thoughts in the clouds instead of watching, I’d have missed this bizarre exchange.

    It’s good to take time to notice. Thanks for the post.



    • Many years back I saw my cat make for what he thought was a pigeon landing in our garden but which turned out to be a big female sparrowhawk; there was a split second while they stopped a few inched away from attack and I could see “Oh shit, look at the claws on that thing!” in both faces!
      Thanks for sharing the story; I giggled at that one.
      yes, I do think we miss a lot. I’d like to allow myself to slow down even more but then I’d turn all Ah Grasshopper and that’d be that!


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