May 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Will to live

By Robert Drewe
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The secret lives of ants

I spent this summer in the sultry subtropical setting of what seemed like a jungle waterhole. In the beginning I merely floated there dazedly, doped up on painkillers, admiring the sharp contrast of palm fronds against the sky. After a few days, though, I began a close relationship with its energetic inhabitants that lasted from December to March. I thought of my surroundings as Ant Land.

The Northern Rivers region is arthropod heaven. Specifically, it’s ant central. The CSIRO has created an ant distribution map; this region stands out in a glowing scarlet band of ant intensity. Australia has more varieties of ants than most countries, and this little subtropical, coastal strip of north-east New South Wales and south-east Queensland – barely 300 kilometres long – has more than anywhere else in Australia.

My ant observing position was the middle step of an old, palm-shaded pool. Here I’d sit, submerged from the waist down, my head in close proximity to the residents; indeed, if I wished, just a few centimetres from their feverish conduct. A thin moat of pool water separated me from their actions, so they couldn’t crawl on me or my notebook. I leant over them and, for even closer observation, I sometimes wore my reading glasses. On both the glossy meat ants and the smaller sugar and black ants (some so minute that the naked eye could just perceive them) I could then make out each classic arthropod segmented body and jointed appendages, exoskeletons so versatile that they’ve been compared to Swiss Army knives.

I was a Gulliver peering nose-to-antennae with the busy Lilliputians. Clearly, I wasn’t my normal self. But as a non-entomologist living alone, someone whose quality of life (walking, sitting, standing, lying down and associated actions) had been severely reduced by a back injury to the single enjoyable activity of pool exercise, I found the ants’ behaviour increasingly fascinating. In my defence, I agree with Henry Miller: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

The pool is a 10-metre, pueblo-style model of stained terracotta bricks and sandblasted cement, beginning to crumble at the edges. It wouldn’t look out of place in a ’60s New Mexico motel. Except between 4 and 6 pm, when the sun slips behind my neighbours’ silky oaks and macadamias, the pool is shaded by python-inviting palms. Its edges have an overhanging terracotta lip, so if any creature – moth, cane toad, snake, rat, bee, frog, spider or possum – falls in, it usually doesn’t climb out again. (Though it can do so, if it has the sense to use the lifesaving boogie-board ramp I’ve provided down at the deep end.)

Most mornings, especially if it has rained overnight, a varied selection of insects and wildlife bob on the surface – either drowned or barely alive. The still-living creatures I scoop up and drop into the bushes, safely away from the ants. Blindly opening the lid of the filter box to see if anything is trapped in there does provide a suspenseful second or two once you’ve discovered your first snake coiled inside.

While the pool is often in shadow, its surrounding patio is sunstruck for eight or nine hours per day. It’s the territory of two main colonies of meat ants – one side of the pool each – three tribes of black ants and two of bulldog ants. The meat ants rule. Unless it’s a 40-degree heatwave, they don’t mind the sun. Even on the hottest day, a lone scout patrolling the territory will alert the nest if a prize morsel, especially a moth or a caddisfly – easy to tear apart and the ants’ favourite fast food – falls into their clutches.

This is where I come in, because before I swim each day I feed the ants the drowned creatures that I’ve scooped out (preferring a pristine, bug-free pool). A scout ant will investigate each one and signal the others; within seconds there’ll be a sort of ‘the sky is falling’ major panic in which they all hysterically race around in circles. Then they settle and swarm all over the offering, first stinging it to ensure it’s really dead, then dismantling it.

Usually this manna from heaven is a small, drowned striped frog (the Common Eastern Froglet to be precise). The record number of these froglets I’ve found, after a particularly stormy night, is 15. And the fastest hauling-off of a frog by meat ants, from go to whoa, was 90 minutes. All that was left was a faint froggy tracery, like the chalked outline of a murder victim. There is something strangely moving – a pleading human gesture – about a dead frog on its back, its fingered hands gesturing at the sky.

Some local farmers with dams on their properties use meat ants to get rid of cane toads. They set saucers of cat food around the dams, which attract both toads and meat ants. The ants prefer not to share their Whiskas, and swarm the toads’ bellies, killing them with their sheer weight of numbers. Meat ants are too sure-footed to fall in the pool, whereas every day I scoop out nine or ten sinister looking, 3-centimetre long, red bulldog ants. Unless pickings are slim, the meat ants steer clear of these natural enemies, even when dead. Starkly attenuated, they’re menacing close-up. The bulldog ant (or bull ant, the terminology varies from state to state) famously appears in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation as a paradigmatic example of strife and destruction endemic to the ‘will to live’:

The bulldog ant of Australia affords us the most extraordinary example of this kind; for if it is cut in two, a battle begins between the head and the tail. The head seizes the tail in its teeth, and the tail defends itself by bravely stinging the head. The battle may last for half an hour, until they die or are dragged away by other ants.

Given that my own mind seemed to be disintegrating under the palms, I was glad to discover some big thinkers with a nutty ant attitude. A peculiar passage in Herodotus’ Histories reports that a species of fox-sized furry ants lived in an eastern province of the Persian Empire. To the delight of the local Minaro people, according to Herodotus, these giant ants would unearth gold dust when digging their mounds and tunnels. The ants were also said to chase and devour full-grown camels. Pliny ‘the Elder’ also mentioned them in his Naturalis Historia. According to the ethnologist Michel Peissel, however, the people of Kashmir were having a lend of Herodotus because they didn’t want foreigners coming after their gold. The “giant ants” were actually marmots.

I think a live camel might be beyond my meat ants (and beyond a marmot, as well). They’re not interested in dead lizards or the hard-bodied belid weevils either. Not when there are soft-bodied, easy pickings such as worms, caterpillars, centipedes and millipedes to be had. A bee, however, or a wasp scooping up drops of water to help cement its nest, is also fallen upon with great enthusiasm. Oblivious to their poison, they enjoy spiders – funnel-webs or white-tails – and haul them home, one hairy leg at a time.

One breezy afternoon at the end of summer I watched two meat ant scouts investigating a purple dragonfly. Given dragonflies’ skill at flicking safely over the pool’s surface after mosquito larvae, this was a rare drowned find. They were poised on its back when a gust lifted its long, light, transparent wings off the ground. The dragonfly took off. For a few seconds the ants were airborne. They soared like tiny Great War pilots.

Robert Drewe

Robert Drewe writes novels, short stories, memoir and essays. His latest novel is Whipbird.

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