Strange Stories of Ants


The white ant is a small insect, the body being of a yellowish white color, and repulsive in appearance. This tiny earth-dweller lives almost entirely on wood. When a tree is cut down, white ants immediately swarm toward the food thus unwittingly provided for them by man.

You might reside in Africa for many years and never see one of these ants, for they live underground; but their ravages confront the explorer at almost every step. You build a house in Uganda. For a short time you fancy that you have pitched upon the only spot in the country where there are no white ants. But one day the doorposts totter, and lintel and rafters come down with a crash. You look at a section of any one of the wrecked timbers, and find that the whole inside has been eaten away.

The apparently solid logs of the whole house are now all mere cylinders of bark, and through the thickest of them you could push your little finger. The household furniture—in fact everything made of wood—has been attacked and utterly ruined. Indeed, the ants will gnaw through most substances except earthenware, glass, iron, and tin. So greatly are these tiny creatures feared in certain parts of Africa that, in those districts, wooden trunks are never carried by experienced travelers.

The white ant is never visible. Why it should not show itself is strange—it is stone blind. But its modesty is really due to a desire for self-protection; for the moment it shows itself above ground it finds a dozen enemies waiting to devour it. Still, the white ant can never procure food until it does come above the surface of the soil.

Night is the great feeding time in the tropics, but it is clear that darkness is no protection to the ant, and yet without coming out of the ground it cannot live. The difficulty is solved thus: It takes earth up with it. White ants may have reached the top of a tree, and yet they were underground not long ago. They took up soil with them, building it into tunnel-huts as they moved upward; and in these huts they lived securely, feasting on the wood of the tree, around which they had built solid walls of earth.

Millions of trees, in some districts, are plastered over with mud tubes, galleries, and chambers. It is not unusual to find a tree having thousands of pounds of earth packed around it. The earth is conveyed by the insects up a central pipe, with which all the various galleries communicate, and which, at the downward end, connects with passages running deep into the ground.

The white ant’s method of working is as follows: At the foot of a tree the tiniest hole cautiously opens in the soil close to the bark. A small head appears with a tiny grain of earth clasped in its jaws. Against the tree trunk this grain is deposited and the head is withdrawn. Again the little creature returns with another grain, which is laid beside the first, tight against it, and the builder once more disappears underground in search of more of these unquarried building stones.

A third grain is not placed against the tree, but against the former grains; a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth grain follow, and the plan of a foundation begins to suggest itself. The grains are formed into a semicircular wall, and the work is pushed forward by many thousands of the little masons. As the wall grows higher and higher, it takes the shape of a long perpendicular tunnel running up the side of the tree—a marvel of architectural skill.

The way in which the building is done is extremely curious. Each grain or stone, as it is brought to the top, is covered with mortar. Without this precaution the wall would crumble into dust before reaching half an inch in height; but the insect pours over the earthen grains a sticky secretion, turning each grain round and round until it has been overspread with the gluelike liquid. Then the stone is placed with great care in the proper position, and is worked about vigorously for a moment or two until it is well set.

To every hundred workers in a white-ant colony, which numbers many thousands of individuals, there are, perhaps, two soldiers. These are larger in build than the laborers, and never perform any other work than sentry duty; yet they go about with a certain air of business, as if one were the architect and the other the superintendent of the structure being built.

They are stationed at the mouth of the tunnel. Sometimes enemies—other species of ants—draw near, and then the working white ants, being but poor, defenseless creatures, blind and unarmed, would be in danger of death were not their big fighting comrades on guard. The soldiers rush to the rescue and, with a few sweeps of their scythe-like jaws, clear the field. While the attacking party is carrying off its dead, the builders, unconscious of the fray, quietly continue at their work.

It is not only a tree here and there that exhibits the work of the white ant, but in many places the whole forest is so colored with dull red columns as to give a distinct tone to the landscape. The earth tubes crumble into dust in the summer, the clay is scattered over the country by the wind, and in this way tends to increase and refresh the soil.

Again, during the rains, this ant-raised earth is washed into the rivulets and borne away to fertilize distant valleys, or is carried to the ocean, where, along the coast line, it “sows the dust of continents to be.”

Peter Huber, walking one day in a field near Geneva, saw on the ground a strong detachment of reddish colored ants on the march, and bethought himself of following them. On the flanks of the column, as if to dress its ranks, a few sped to and fro in eager haste. After marching for about a quarter of an hour, they halted before an ant-hill belonging to some small black ants, and a desperate struggle took place at its gates.

A small number of blacks offered a brave resistance; but the great majority of the people thus assailed fled through the gates remotest from the scene of combat, carrying away their young. It was just these which were the cause of the strife—what the blacks most feared being the theft of their offspring. And soon the assailants, who had succeeded in penetrating into the city, might be seen emerging from it, loaded with the young black progeny.

The red ants, encumbered with their living booty, left the unfortunate city in the desolation of its great loss, and resumed the road to their own habitation, whither their astonished observer followed them. But how was his astonishment augmented when at the threshold of the red ants’ community, a small population of black ants came forward to receive the plunder, welcoming with visible joy these children of their own race, which would perpetuate it in foreign lands!

This, then, was a mixed city, where the strong warrior ants lived on a perfectly good understanding with the little blacks. But what of the latter? Huber soon discovered that they were the workers of the community. It was they alone who did all the building. They alone took care of the young red ants and the captives of their own species. They alone administered the affairs of the city, provided its supplies of food, and waited upon their red masters who, like great infant giants, allowed their little attendants to feed them at the mouth.

The only occupations of the red masters were war, theft, and kidnaping. Nothing did they do in the intervals but wander about lazily, and bask in the sunshine at the doors of their barracks.

Huber made an experiment. He wanted to see what would be the result if the great red ants found themselves without servants. He put a few into a glass case, and put some honey for them in a corner, so that they had nothing to do but take it. Miserable the degradation, cruel the punishment with which slavery afflicts the enslavers! They did not touch it; they seemed to know nothing; they had become so grossly ignorant that they could no longer feed themselves. Some of them died from starvation, with food before them.

To complete the experiment, Huber then introduced into the case one black ant. The presence of this sagacious slave changed the face of things, and reestablished life and order. He went straight to the honey, and fed the dying simpletons.
The little blacks in many things carry a moral authority whose signs are very visible. They do not, for example, permit the great red ants to go out alone on useless expeditions, but compel them to return into the city. Nor are they even at liberty to go out in a body if their wise little slaves do not think the weather favorable, if they fear a storm, or if the day is far advanced. When an excursion proves unsuccessful, and they return without children, the little blacks are stationed at the gates of the city to forbid their ingress, and send them back to the combat; nay more, you may see them take the cowards by the collar, and force them to retrace their route.

These are astounding facts; but they were seen by Huber, as here described. Not being able to trust his eyes, he summoned one of the greatest naturalists of Sweden, Jurine, to his side, to make new investigations and decide whether he had been deceived. This witness, and others who made similar observations, found that his discoveries were just as he had described them. Yet, after all these weighty testimonies, I still doubted, until on a certain occasion in the park of Fontainebleau, I saw it with my own eyes.

It was half past four in the afternoon of a very warm day. From a pile of stones emerged a column of from four to five hundred red or reddish ants. They marched rapidly toward a piece of turf, kept in order by their sergeants, whom I saw on the flanks and who would not permit any one to straggle.

Suddenly the mass seemed to sink and disappear. There was no sign of ant-hills in the turf; but after a while I detected an almost imperceptible orifice, through which we saw them vanish in less time than it takes to write these words. I supposed that probably this was the entrance to their own home; but in less than a minute they showed me that I was mistaken. Out they thronged, each carrying a young captive in its mandibles.

From the short time they had taken, it was evident that they had a previous knowledge of the place, and knew where the infant blacks were kept. Perhaps it was not their first journey. The black ants whose home had been invaded sallied out in considerable numbers. They did not attempt to fight. They seemed frightened and stunned. They endeavored only to delay the red ants by clinging to them. A red ant was thus stopped; but another red one, who was free, relieved him of his burden, and thereupon the black ant relaxed his grasp.

It was, in fact, a pitiful sight. The blacks offered no serious resistance. The five hundred reds succeeded in carrying off fully three hundred young ants. At two or three feet from the hole, the blacks ceased to pursue them, and returned slowly to their home.

DEFINITIONS:—Repulsive, disagreeable. Tropics, the warm regions near the equator. Precaution, care taken beforehand. Fray, fight. Augmented, made greater. Astounding, overwhelming. Mandibles, the mouth organs of insects. Sallied, rushed forth.

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