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I don’t know when it happened, but it did. At some point in my life, I realised that if I asked a random question about ants, I’d be astounded by the answers I found. Tiny though they are, they hold within their exoskeletal frames, wonders and mysteries that both baffle and delight anyone with an ant question. Here are some questions I’ve asked and the amazing answers I’ve found over the years:

What do you do with an injured ant?

This is what I asked my grandfather, pointing to a black motionless speck resting on my thumbnail. One summer break, perhaps out of boredom, I began to “rescue” ants. I’d pick them out of rain puddles or if there were too many, I’d throw leaves so they could be lifeboats, or twigs they could use to climb out. This particular worker ant was stuck in a jar of honey. I had lifted him up cautiously on the end of a chopstick and then sprinkled water to dilute the viscous nectar (nearly drowning him). He looked exhausted but not dead. “Any creature — man or animal, in order to heal, needs to feel safe. A place where it can rest. With no threat in sight…and there must be food, of course,” said my grandfather who was no ant expert. So, I put the ant in a matchbox full of sugar. From being submerged in a jar of honey, to a wash, and then held captive inside a lightless matchbox full of sugar, I don’t know what this ant felt about my rescue effort, but he regained strength in the next few hours. He shot out of the box like a tracer bullet when I opened it to release him; all without a hint of gratitude.

Like many other species of ants, weaver ants are known to carry injured mates back to their nests.  Photo: Ripan Biswas  Cover Photo: The weaver ant is named after its unique ability to tie leaves together with larval silk and form a nest quite unlike any other in the insect kingdom. Cover Photo: Ripan Biswas

Like many other species of ants, weaver ants are known to carry injured mates back to their nests. Photo: Ripan Biswas
Cover Photo: The weaver ant is named after its unique ability to tie leaves together with larval silk and form a nest quite unlike any other in the insect kingdom. Cover Photo: Ripan Biswas

Years later, I learnt that ants don’t rely on big-hearted rescues from species other than their own, because they conduct rescues themselves. Particularly, Cataglyphis cursor ants have been found to strategically rescue nestmates buried in sand or trapped in wire mesh. A trapped individual signals for help by releasing chemicals that draw attention to it. A “rescue party” quickly arrives and begins to dig, bite, break, carry, or do whatever it takes to bring home one of their own.

How do ants survive storms?

Once, when an unexpected summer storm broke out, I took shelter under a tree and realised I wasn’t the only one seeking refuge. Just above me, on the underside of a leaf were two foraging ants carrying termite wings, riding out the storm. But what about their nests? What happens when floods hit? How do they deal with furious winds?

The Saharan ant, when foraging, will prefer to walk in a straight line to its food source. But when the desert wind whips over the dunes or when challenged with a headwind, instead of trudging headlong into the draft, it zigzags to reduce drag. A study found that in windy conditions leaf-cutter ants pick smaller leaf shreds than normal so that they are not blown off course when the leaf starts acting like a sail. When it’s pouring, mangrove ants really get their heads together to combat flooding. Soldiers are sent up to block the nest entrance by strategically sticking their heads out to act as plugs.

The Indian jumping ant is usually seen alone or in smaller groups than most other ants. Here is an individual with a moth, outside its nest. Photo: Samuel John The Indian jumping ant is usually seen alone or in smaller groups than most other ants. Here is an individual with a moth, outside its nest. Photo: Samuel John

The Indian jumping ant is usually seen alone or in smaller groups than most other ants. Here is an individual with a moth, outside its nest. Photo: Samuel John

Just when I thought there couldn’t be a more ingenious storm survival strategy, I was learned of the bamboo ants. In a paper published in 2000, bamboo ants were reported to respond to flooding by frantically drinking up the water that seeped in. Then, they exited the nest and urinated to dispose the water. This strategy of “communal urinating” might well be the antithesis of the phrase “peeing in the wind”.

Can ants predict storms?

About four years ago, in Saurashtra, Gujarat, while chasing a story about weathermen who relied on ancient wisdom to make predictions, I came across a man who was known as the “Drought Specialist”. He read the earth like a book. In flower blooms and fox cries, in salt deposits in the well and lapwing nests he foresaw fierce storms and parched summers. “What about ants?” I asked him one evening as he slurped tea from a yellowed saucer. “Oh, they know so much about the earth,” he replied.  “Something about them changes in the hours before the rain. The little black ones quicken their pace. The crooked brown ones disappear altogether. The young (larvae and pupae) are carried to higher ground, dead beetles, and frogs are left alone…they just know.”

While it is not yet “proven” that ants can predict storms hours before they manifest, it has been observed that their antennae are super sensitive to the slightest changes around them. A study conducted in 2012 revealed that some ant species have nearly five times more odour receptors than other insects including fruit flies (61 receptors) and honeybees (174 receptors). These ants have the genes to detect about 400 unique odours. If one of these is reserved for the sweet scent of a coming storm, it’s not so bewildering after all.

In the winter, acorn ants (genus Temnothorax) are small and brown and bury themselves in nut acorns, nutshells or in other small cavities. They have 11 segments on their antennae.  Photo: Ripan Biswas

In the winter, acorn ants (genus Temnothorax) are small and brown and bury themselves in nut acorns, nutshells or in other small cavities. They have 11 segments on their antennae. Photo: Ripan Biswas

What happens when an ant is lost?

Together, ants form a super-organism; and each individual fulfils a purpose. Every action is the pursuit of a designated role that changes through time. In playing out their roles, they perform incredible feats; load lifting, weaving, building, foraging, defending, protecting, trail-making, communicating, nursing, scouting, flood response, waste management, reconnaissance and so much else. Like the moving parts of a grandfather clock, they do this in complete synchronicity. But take one away from its nest, with no chance of making it back, what’s it going to do?

Ants removed from their colony, will frantically search for a scent trail to walk back home. With no set movement patterns, they search until they find their nest or die. They might cross paths with ants of other colonies but will be immediately recognised as an outsider as they don’t carry the signature pheromones of that particular nest. In that case, they will most likely be killed off. Although individual ants can find food and survive, without a purpose or a role to play as contributing members, their response to isolation is almost self-destructive.

(Left) An unfortunate visitor learns the hard way that weaver ants are extremely aggressive towards intruders. (Right) Golden-backed ants direct other ants in their colony to food by tandem running — a phenomenon in which the follower constantly maintains contact with the leader’s legs and abdomen with its antennae. Photos: Ripan Biswas (left), Samuel John (right)

Close observations of isolated ants have revealed that worker ants doubled the amount of their everyday movement in search of their colony. After panicked searching for a scent trail, exhaustion set in, and eventually as their final moments approached, “…they would begin to shake. Finally, they lay down and stop moving,’’ said Akiko Koto, co-author of a 2015 study on social isolation of ants.

Humans, by simple actions like taking out the trash, dusting a windowsill, or going for a walk, catastrophically alter the lives of ants each day, without realising it. Once, I found myself walking the length of a long corridor within a forest guesthouse in complete darkness. The floor was riddled with large ants I couldn’t identify. I walked cautiously but often a step was followed by a “crunch”. I winced with a feeble tinge of sadness every time that happened. I hoped that somewhere else, there were others more sympathetic than me; those who stepped on an ant accidentally and felt as much sorrow as if the matriarch of an elephant herd had passed on. This made me think: Should our sense of wonder and compassion be governed by how big or small a creature is? Now that’s an ant question I’d like answered.

Pankaj Singh
Pankaj Singh

writes and directs at Faraway Originals - a collective of filmmakers. He finds himself drawn toward tales that hold the mysteries of the natural world and hopes to strengthen the cause of conservation


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