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.