The Ant Excursion

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Yesterday we went out to collect ants. What seemed like it would be a simple experiment became a strange lesson in obsession, terror, and panic.

A leafcutter ant nest is a mind-bogglingly extensive labyrinth of tunnels. Once in the forest, we looked for and quickly found the mounds of dirt left on the surface after the ants’ excavation. A trail of ants nearby betrayed an active entrance. All we had to do was dig.

We opened our assault with a few tactical pick-ax swings to loosen up the ground around the entrance. Next we unleashed a more destructive shovel barrage. The response from the ants as the outer perimeter of their nest was breached was immediate and dramatic: soldiers with massive heart-shaped heads and grasping jaws swarmed out to defend the colony.

“Hold on,” said our guide, a visiting entomologist. “We need to figure out how to capture them.”

A few of us shared questioning glances, having assumed that that particular detail had been worked out beforehand. After a moment of confusion, during which a battalion of enraged soldier ants continued to pour out of the nest, a few sets of tweezers were handed out to the increasingly-dubious grad students. Skepticism only grew when our first attempts at capture met violent resistance. A few of our fingers were bloodied by their bites.

Over time, though, the ants’ defense was bound to be futile against a cadre of determined biologists. We counter-attacked with ax and shovel, dismantling the nest with what must have seemed to the ants terrifying and inexplicable power. Within minutes the ground around us was a messy wasteland of unearthed dirt and angry insects, and we were starting to breach the subterranean chambers where ants raise larvae and cultivate the grey fungus that they use to break down leaves for food.

It was then that a profound change came over the entomolgist leading our expedition. Previously a cheerful and humorous man who simply knew a hell of a lot about ants, the sight of the goodie-filled colony chambers transformed him into someone more like a gold-miner who’d travelled a very long way to seek his fortune and would go to great lengths to obtain it. Sweat beaded his brow. A hysterical note crept into his voice. “Red alert, red alert!” he shouted, sinking his pickaxe into the earth a few inches from where some of us were tweezing ants. “There’s the chamber!” He laid a green foam pad on the ground, donned a pair of gardening gloves, and from his pocket unsheathed what appeared to be a soup ladle. The man had come prepared. “Okay guys.” He paused and took a moment to collect himself. “Here we go.”

With startling dexterity he thrust the ladle into the hole we’d dug and probed the walls of the chamber. When he removed the tool it cradled a heaping load of spongy grey fungus and very pissed-off ants. The entomologist grinned madly.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Jackpot.”

Again and again he scooped out loads of fungus, dropping them into a large plastic tub where they were doused with alcohol. The tub’s contents soon became a nasty green-brown slurry of alcohol, dirt, and ants who, judging by their jerks and shudders, were busy dying very painful deaths.

By this time I was biting my knuckles to keep from laughing. The putrid tubs and their stew of fungus and dead ants; the muddy devastation of the colony looking like a miniature recreation of the Battle of Passchendaele; the swarm of tweezer-wielding grad students darting in like alien invaders to abduct individual ants; and, in the middle of it all, the ecstatic entomologist scooping out clods of dirt with periodic exclamations of glee: it was all intensely weird.

This we repeated for two more colonies at four chambers per colony. After a couple of hours we had filled three tubs with what must have been close to 2000 ants in total. Unfortunately, by the third colony we had run out of alcohol and those ants were considerably less dead than I personally would have preferred. Indeed, when transporting that tub back to the lab we saw several very large soldiers probing the lid for weaknesses, no doubt hoping to escape and enact revenge on those merciless beings who had wrought such swift and cruel destruction on their home and brethren.

As we drove away I found myself imagining the devastated colonies we left behind. I thought of the images I’ve seen of cities and nations in the aftermath of war. Dusty buildings with broken windows like black wounds. Eerie streets cluttered with piles of iron and rubble. Great big holes in the ground. Our assault on the ant colony must have seemed unprecedented, unprovoked, apocalyptic. I imagined the survivors, wandering the mangled wreckage. We left a scarred landscape of mud and dead ants where once a proud and magnificent colony had stood. I wondered if the ants would rebuild or abandon. I wondered if they would mourn.

It annoys me that in movies like War of the Worlds and Independence Day humans repel the invasion. If I learned anything yesterday, it’s that when an alien species of terrible power one day decides to attack earth (perhaps in the name of their version of science), we are well and truly boned.

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