The Industrious Insect

Go to the ant, thou sluggard: Consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no chief, overseer or ruler, Provideth her bread in the summer, And gathereth her food in the harvest.  Prov. 5:6-8

How true is this proverb of Solomon of old, for, indeed, the species of ants inhabiting the tropics and subtropics instinctively provide their food in summer and gather in harvest.  In these regions of the world, ants are active throughout the year and consequently, must provide for the dry season when there is a dearth of food.  However, our temperate species are dormant during the winter and because of their hibernation, the bodily activities are very slow and thus only a very small amount of food is necessary, if any at all.

Let us consider some of the methods regularly employed by certain species of ants to provide for seasons of scarcity.

In the Amazon region, the Atta ants construct their nests in a very ingenious way.  They carry a small amount of soil to the crotch of a tree and there they carefully plant the seed of an orchid-like plant which obtains its food from the moist air and develops into the shape of a flowering sponge, making an ideal formicary (ant-nest).  Some have suggested that the wind or a bird might have carried the seed into the crotch of the tree where it germinated and the ants simply made use of it.  Experiments have confirmed that the latter suppositions are erroneous, for the seeds will grow only in soil prepared by these species of ants.  In addition, it was shown that when given one of its favorite berries, this ant will suck out the juice and carefully plant the seed in its nest.

In the grassy plains of Texas and Mexico, there is a true agricultural ant called “Sower Ant”.  One can scarcely escape noticing the circular areas containing a very sparse uniform vegetation, consisting of only one species of grass called “ant-rice” or “needle grass”.  What a contrast this is to the dense vegetation of the surrounding plain!  How is this possible?  Once again we are amazed at the industrious insect—the ant—which diligently and conscientiously removes all the weeds and plants in these areas except the “needle-grass”.  Thus, a considerable radius surrounding their nest will flourish with this “rice-grass” which alone survives and matures.  These seeds are then gathered and stored in their nests.  Sometimes rain causes the seed to germinate, which endangers the nest itself.  How quickly the ants sense this danger, for immediately, the seeds are carried out and scattered abroad, which may possibly account for the “rice-fields” which were an enigma to the early explorers.

In southern France and Algeria the “Harvester Ants” provide themselves with elaborate underground granaries, which in some instances are even divided into separate sections for the various seeds collected.  Special guards are ever present at the portals to prevent any undesirable seeds or pebbles from entering.  The granary is very carefully cemented to aid in protection against moisture.  Some claim that these seeds are treated with some inhibiting substance by the ants to prevent germination, for as soon as they are planted outside, they commence to grow.  Special members, called soldiers (who are provided with heavy chewing jaws) moisten and grind the grain into paste which is used for food.  At the end of the season, these bread-makers are no longer useful and so their fellow members decapitate them (an exception to the codes of the ant realm).  The following spring, new cooks are produced.

Not only do ants engage in agricultural work, but some are also pastoral in nature.  Certain plant lice—called aphids–produce a saccharine-like secretion which ants consider a great delicacy.  In a very maternal way, these ants provide the aphids with shelter and protection, for when they discover them on some leaf or bush, they herd them together very gently with their antennae and direct them to their homes just as a shepherd would herd his flock and bring them home. Their care is well rewarded, for they receive an abundance of sweet exudation.  In spite of their minute size, the average aphid sometimes produces 20 to 40 drops of this sugary fluid per hour.  Lasius niger (ant) actually fences in areas in which she keeps her little cows (aphids) and amputates the wings to prevent their escape.  Another species called Lasius flavus, collects aphid eggs and nurses the young so as to insure itself of an adequate honeydew supply.  In times of danger, it exercises just as much care and caution in sparing the young aphid as its own young.  The lady bird beetle is very fond of eating aphids and so a certain species of ants makes paper-like cages for its aphids to protect them from the enemy.

In tropical Asia, Africa and Australia are found the “Weaver Ants” which draw two leaves together.  When the ant larvae are ready to spin their cocoon, the adult ant uses the larvae as a shuttle in sewing the two leaves together while the larvae secretes its thread (ordinarily used in the formation of the cocoon).

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Believe It or Not!!!

(1). Did you know that ants can tunnel under rivers; that they are miniature engineers and have been observed in building bridges?

(2). Are you aware that certain species of ants have funerals and when a member dies the entire community marches solemnly to a selected site?  After digging a grave and burying the dead, they return “two-by-two” to their homes.

(3). Have you heard that the workers are marvelous “nursemaids” and care for young in all the stages with great tenderness and solicitude which is not excelled by any other insect or animal?

(4). Have you ever seen ants attracted to the light?  Although they enjoy the illuminating rays, their homes are a perpetual “blackout” necessitated by the fact that they must function as retreats in time of storm, as protection in times of stress and as little dens in time of hibernation during the winter months.  Thus, the chambers are built many inches beneath the surface of the ground.  However, during sunshiny days, the workers painstakingly carry the eggs and larvae to the surface where they can be warmed by the sun’s rays and profit from them.

(5). Have you read that there is a species of ants which are held as slaves by other ants who are warriors by nature and are always fighting neighboring communities?  They escort their prisoners of war to their homes and keep them in systematic servitude for the rest of their days.

(6). Have you ever been told that as many as 90,000 ants can live in one ant-hill two feet high?  That nests have been found in Columbia S. A. which range from sixteen to twenty feet in diameter and were three feet high?

(7). Have you observed that ants have a storage pouch called a “flagon” at the entrance of the stomach and when distended, it frequently occupies 7/8th of the abdomen?  Certain ants when thus filled will suspend themselves from the roof of the formicary.  In time of famine they will unselfishly regurgitate their reserve supply of honeydew from the flagon and thus maintain the lives in the community.  Never again will they see the light of day, for they are voluntary prisoners and their sole purpose for existence is to function as mechanical reservoirs.

The social life of this interesting industrious insect can best be summarized in the words of one author: “How happily the members of the community seem to live together, there is harmony everywhere.  The little people help each other when in need or in difficulty.  When one is hungry another feeds it; when one is sickly another ministers unto it; the smaller workers of frail build or not as robust as others are borne along in the grasp of their more stalwart neighbors.  When a burden is too heavy for one to carry, another comes to its aid.  When separated a little while from each other, the joy of the little people at meeting knows scarcely any bounds”.