Way Of The Ants
( Originally Published 1908 )
If you would see the ants to advantage to your own, that is you must turn over a pasture stone under which one of the species of small yellow ants has its nest. By thus gently removing the roof, if it is a good-sized stone, the whole colony will be in view at once. The red-ant hill presents difficulties. To dig into it or to pull it apart is quite useless, as the earth falls in and nothing is to be seen but a struggling heap of dusty and indignant ants. It rarely happens that such a hill may be built around a small boulder. If this boulder is suddenly and deftly removed, not dragged or rolled aside, but lifted clear of the hill so that the sides of the nest may not be broken in, a remarkable scene is disclosed.
I have found such an ant hill, and by removing the stone the household was placed on exhibition — but not all its secrets revealed by any means. From several large chambers, now roofless, galleries and corridors radiated in all directions. The instant the stone was lifted the ants swarmed from the galleries into these chambers, which were packed with the large cocoons. There were thousands of pupae, of a delicate brown tint, looking wonder-fully clean and fresh, but with such celerity did the ants work that inside of ten minutes all were carried from view.
Among the rest were perhaps a dozen young ants, the head and thorax being white and the abdomen a pale mauve. These creatures moved feebly about, taking no interest in the proceedings, and were for the most part seized by the workers and conveyed into the galleries. Apparently they were individuals that had just emerged from their pupa-cases.
Under another large stone were two very numerous colonies living side by side, of different species. The nests were, of course, entirely separate and under opposite ends of the stone. The smaller of the two appeared to be stinging ants, for they clustered in great numbers over their small pupae, elevating their abdomens in a threatening manner like so many diminutive scorpions. The other species were large and active ants of a polished bronze hue. Their pupae were naked, which gave the nest the appearance of being filled with grains of rice.
These large ants set to work with frenzied activity and removed all of their own pupae. Then, and not until then, they swarmed over into the adjoining nest and began carrying the cocoons of the small ants back into their own nest. Now and then some small ant bolder than the rest would resist, and an individual combat ensued which ended by the large ant carrying off her small antagonist. There was, however, very little resistance of this sort, and the pillage, if such it were, continued until the remaining cocoons had all been carried over into the nest of the large ants. So few of the small ants made any resistance that it gave one the agreeable impression the larger ants were only offering assistance. But I failed to find on subsequent visits that they had returned the pupae. And although they daily brought their own pupae out of the galleries, the smaller cocoons never more came to view, and the small ants subsequently abandoned their nest. Thereafter I felt some compunction in thus disturbing a whole community for mere curiosity.
It is noticeable above all how the ants at such times take no thought for their own safety, but for that of their charge solely. Whether their interest is in any sense maternal or merely a property interest does not appear. Another feature evident in disturbing a formicary is the general harmony in which the individuals of any one colony work together. Here is no less than a catastrophe, as if the roof of one's house were suddenly to be removed and everything upset. And yet not one runs away or apparently confíicts with any other. There are no cross purposes ; no two get in each other's way ; but animated by a common motive, and by one only, the community proceeds with despatch to the work in hand.
Is this socialism among ants something preordained for them as the condition of their life, or is it in part an acquired tendency of the ants them-selves? That they do acquire tendencies would seem clear enough. If it should be proven that this social state is in fact the result of an evolution among them, it would be one of the most significant facts of natural history.
It serves the community admirably at any rate. But with them the individual does not count. Ants are ahead of us in one respect in that they have order without coercion. There is such harmony, such co-operation among them, they have evolved no ruling class, the queens being such only in name and more properly the mother ants. The life of the community is all, and every one looks out for it.
On warm afternoons early in September you may look for the swarming of the queens, when myriads of ants sail into the air in their desultory marriage flight. In apparently endless succession they pass, every now and then one alighting, whereupon begins the curious part of the performance, for they run rapidly about, throwing them-selves upon their backs to squirm from side to side after the manner of a dog scratching. They then get upon all sixes and continue running to and fro. After these contortions the wings wear a most disheveled appearance, and, as the process continues, become more and more crumpled, until at length one or more are missing.
Sometimes in sheer desperation an ant will lie on her back and revolve rapidly in this position. In some cases the wings seem to resist all attempts to remove them and the ants redouble their efforts. Their frenzy appears to know no bounds; they fairly stand on their heads and repeatedly fall over miniature precipices and into Lilliputian crevices in their blind determination to tear off the wings. Again they seem to use their legs as though trying to twist off a wing. It is the most fanatical performance to be witnessed among insects.
Such dogged persistence must sooner or later attain its end, and presently the ant is seen running about wingless or perhaps with only a torn stub left. The behavior is no longer frantic as before, but she now moves about as if enjoying great relief. During one such flight great numbers came down into a gravelly path through a huckleberry patch. They apparently avoided the bushes on either hand, and chose to alight in the path, for it was alive with ants twisting and turning and wriggling upon their backs in the gravel. Others, having gotten rid of their wings, were attempting to go head foremost into the ground, possibly with a view of laying their eggs, or merely because the soil was their natural element.
Around the formicary itself the workers were grouped en masse, endeavoring either to restrain the new brood of queens in the old colony or to coerce them into leaving. They appeared to drive them as a squad of police might force back a crowd. But it is manifestly difficult to interpret their motives with any assurance, and it is more likely they were provoking them to flight. At such times they ascend the branches of a bush and collect in excited little groups on the buds and flowers around the females, as if determined they should go. No doubt it is an exciting day with them, a sort of Labor Day demonstration. In this case it is the womenfolk who are thus bent on asserting their rights and doing as they will. But why, having once ascended into the larger world and the liberty of winged creatures, must they insist on tearing off this means of freedom to become crawling, laborious insets? They appear to hear two calls, one from above and the other of the earth, earthy, and to obey the latter. But it is with them the race and the future always the future.
To an ant a tree is a forest in itself. Ascending its mammoth trunk to the upper regions, she follows the great highways of the branches, out into the unknown and trackless wilderness of leaves in pursuit of her game the aphid. She knows well in what wild and solitary uplands to look for this mountain-goat.
The under side of maple leaves affords good pasturage to numerous green aphids which there browse contentedly in the pleasant shade and under the watchful eyes of the small brown ants that herd them. The aphids are all sizes and ages, though as to age the difference is probably but a few days. With a glass, the process of " milking" may be observed, the ants merely stroking the aphids with their antenna. Two small tubes, like sap quills, protrude from the back of the aphid, and from time to time minute glistening drops are seen to exude from these tubes and are removed by the ants in attendance. Surely, to the ant here is the land of milk and honey. They move constantly to and fro among the aphids, now and then stopping to stroke one. Apparently they detect by some signs which are ready to yield the sweet fluid. Their presence appears to be agreeable to the aphids and is never in the least resented. After long watching with the glass, I have never seen anything akin to insubordination. Pluck the leaf ever so gently and hold it in a proper position, the difference is at once apparent to the aphids, for there begins an exodus, and large and small troop un the stem of the leaf and so on to whatsoever it may be attached; nor does it cease until they have deserted to the last one.
But the life of ants is by no means given over to these bucolic pursuits. While the meadow-ants seem to be in the pastoral stage, the red species and the large black ones are hunters and warriors. The most sanguinary conflict I have witnessed was a battle of the • ants. Two armies of the same black species met on the floor of a neighbor's barn. The battle lasted throughout several days, and both sides fought with indescribable ferocity. Where they came from was a mystery, as no such colonies of ants had ever been seen thereabouts.
They appeared to be of the species Formica pennsylvanica which nests in trees, but these do not occur in very large colonies, whereas the con-tending hosts upon the barn floor were as the Tartar hordes. The floor was strewn with struggling pairs and with the dead and injured, and always fresh forces were arriving.
The persistence with which they fought is only to be compared to that of bulldogs, while they showed the ferocity of weasels. Once let an ant get another by the thorax and she would continue crunching and sawing until she had severed the head, notwithstanding in the meantime one or several of her own legs had been cut off by her antagonist. This was the usual outcome of the various individual combats.
From time to time I placed pairs of combatants on the slide of a dissecting lens, and through the glass observed them as in an arena. It was a miniature combat of gladiators, but with no appeal for mercy on the part of the vanquished. Much evidently depended on the best hold, as in wrestling, for there was no dislodging an ant once she had secured it. Under the lens the comparatively great strength and the skill and relentless ferocity of these miniature warriors became more evident and was astonishing to witness.
A bird's-eye view of the battlefield revealed no plan of action nor any directing genius. It was every one for himself or rather herself but there was absolute unity of purpose. Occasionally some could be seen running about with the heads of the vanquished suspended on their antenna, whereon the jaws had closed in the death-struggle, not again to be relaxed. These ants appeared to seek no relief from such a monstrous encumbrance, nor seemingly was any offered by their comrades. Others were crawling on an uneven number of legs in search of new foes. The cause of such a conflict among ants of the same species remains a mystery one of the many mysteries.
Every year the red ants raid the common blacks for the purpose of making slaves — a most high-handed proceeding. This season I came upon the invading host marching up the road about ten in the morning of July 28th. The invasion had but lately begun, as the ants were carrying no pupae; it was the skirmish line. As the column advanced, frequent and rapid communication took place between individuals and stragglers who were coming back. Later, when the raid was well under way, there was little of this. The nest of the red ants was by the side of a path in the woods which led out to the wagon road, while the negroes were domiciled some distance up this lane. Now the column of red ants followed the path and the road the entire way, in place of going directly through the bushes, though it doubled the distance, which thus amounted to some fifty yards.
Red ants were soon pouring out of the various openings in the nest of the blacks, carrying both pupae and larvae, and rarely one passed with a bunch of small white eggs. Several black queens came out of the nest, and as they emerged were set upon by red ants, which tried to hold them by their wings. They managed, however, to throw off their assailants, and ran under my feet, where they were followed by a score of black workers, all of whom crowded under the soles of my shoes as I stood on the loose gravel. At noon I timed the ants and found that, on the average, forty pupae and larve were carried past a given point every minute. Two unbroken columns now ex-tended the entire distance between the nests, one advancing and the other returning.
Occasionally one passed carrying a portion of a black ant, a head and thorax, or an abdomen. Again, one would appear with a live black, which, when liberated by me, frantically made her escape. Very young negroes when carried off were never injured. On one occasion several red ants were struggling with a black, and among them was a black who fought against her own friend. This is the only case in which I saw a black ant help the enemy in this way — a traitor, evidently, but presumably one whose pupa had been captured the year before and reared in slavery. Whereas the red ants always came to each other's assistance, the blacks rarely did so.
By five o'clock the raid was practically over for the day. It ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Early in the struggle a slender, straggling column had diverged from the main line, about half way between the nests. I now found the entire body of ants moving in this new direction. The one raid over, they had undertaken another upon a colony of blacks some twenty-five yards distant, and were transporting the pupae and larva at about the same rate as before. To reach this nest, the column must cross the wagon road, and here a number were crushed from time to time by passing vehicles. But the marching army passed by with the stolen pupae and paid no heed to their wounded comrades. This second foray ceased before nightfall.
The following morning by ten o'clock the raid had been renewed and a great stream of ants were bearing away pupae as before. Whenever the column moved over dry leaves its progress was distinctly audible, a rustling sound suggesting the curiously dry crik crik of a serpent. The footfall of the ants was as incessant as the patter of rain ; a barefooted insect host, a rabble of sans culottes, and the sound of their marching feet reached my listening ears, as it were in the clouds above them.
On the fourth day the slavers began kidnapping the blacks themselves and carrying them unharmed to the nest. Quite often I found them carrying individuals of their own species. These may have been deserters or they may have been ants from some other community, who, learning of the raid, thought to be present at the final sack and perhaps share in the spoils. A still more puzzling thing was the fact that some few red ants bore negroes in the wrong dire ion, that is, from the red back to the black colony. I have noticed on former occasions that the raid may become thus complicated toward its close as if the ants, drunk with victory, were beside themselves.
On the 7th of August the raid was directed against a new negro colony some distance further down the road. It was carried on with something like the usual vigor until the 25th of the month, when it apparently ceased. The first nests of blacks, in which some few ants remained, were no longer molested, though the besieging army passed them on its way to the field of operation. Thus the series of raids of this one colony of red ants continued for nearly a month.
I found no less than three other raids in progress at this time, among widely separated communities, so that the marauding spirit was contagious among them and spread like the war fever. The red warriors were everywhere in arms and bent on pillage. One hill, being free from grass, offered a clear view of what was going on at the doorway at least. Here the black workers the slaves of a former raid were carrying out bits of gravel, while the train of red ants entered, bearing the stolen pupa from the pillaged nest. The red ants were at this time bringing some large queen pupa which they had great difficulty in getting over the ground. As they approached the entrance, the black workers deposited their bits of gravel and ran to their assistance. Several blacks which remained near the entrance seemed to act thus as porters, while others about the top of the hill were engaged as laborers.
Stopping work at about five o'clock, the train of red ants melted away before one's eyes. They dropped their task very much as a gang of men do when the whistle blows. Their day at that sort of labor was therefore only about seven or eight hors, as if some of the principles of Labor Union were in vogue among these brigands. They would kidnap only so many hours a day. The slaves, however, kept at work until dusk. Perhaps the red ants continued inside the nest, disposing of the pup e captured during the day, but they brought n none after five o'clock.
Three days had elapsed from the close of this raid when, for some reason, the entire colony of red ants deserted the hill, carrying the newly captured slaves and their pupae with them. They took up their abode under a cement walk, an unusual place for red ants, and a week of incessant labor was consumed in carrying the black ants and pupae to the new site. This was, then, a bona fide exodus of an entire community.
Under the cement walk to which the colony of red arts had migrated with their slaves were numerous rests of small brown ants. These swarmed one sultry afternoon, and as they came pouring out of the cracks in the walk and clustered on the surface, the fierce red ants fell upon them with fury, slaying hundreds and leaving most of the bodies on the walk, though many were carried away. This I took to be a veritable hunting expedition. Like some other "sportsmen," they appeared to kill more than they wanted, and the little heaps of winged dead were left to be scattered by a gust of wind.
On the following day a new chapter opened in the history of this remarkable colony, for I found them attacking a large negro colony some distance away. Contrary to custom, the blacks defended their nests with spirit, and at first seemed to hold their own. Not divining what was to follow, I was surprised to find the red ants carrying away no pupae. But the next day it was made plain enough, for the red ants appeared in a compact column bearing pupae and slaves, which but a week before they had deposited under the walk, and which they were now moving for the third time. Was this a second exodus or had the move to the walk been merely an expedient until they should find a more suitable place ? Without further ado they invaded the nest, and four distinct colonies ( the red ants held slaves of a previous year), one red and three black, with all larva and pupae and some eggs, were thus housed together. One may imagine the feelings of the unfortunate community on finding not only an invading army of freebooters,' but that some thousands of their own cousins, children and all, were come bag and bag-gage to live with them.
Now the marching column passed close by the nests of the little brown ants which had been their hinting-ground of the few past days. They were t o engrossed in carrying pupae to follow the chae, but I found three of their slaves posted by some small holes in the cement through which the brown ants left their nests. These negroes remained near the opening, and, as the brown ants appeared, would reach over the edge and pull one forth which was soon crushed and tossed aside. During the several hours that I watched them the three slaves remained so engaged. From time to time they would run about among the wounded, and picking up one here or there, apparently give it a nip.
This final move occupied some eight days, and nothing further transpired in the history of this colony,'-- that is, above ground. The war fever subside as suddenly as it had arisen, and the erstwhile warriors were perhaps become peaceful educators of the slaves now being born into captivity with only some vague instinct of freedom, some race memory handed down from the halcyon days before the advent of the red Tartar.
If the sluggard is to go to the ant, then let it not be to the red ant, nor again to the slave, but to some Syrian species known to Solomon, which stored up provender for the winter, or to the little brown ant which herds the aphid. Huber relates that he found the slave-making ant of Europe ( P. rufescens) unable to feed itself, so that, if isolated, it would miserably starve in the midst of plenty. Not to such an ant, then, should the sluggard go, but to that wise yellow species which, declares Lubbock, actually brought in and cared for the eggs of an aphid through the winter, and carried out the young aphids in the spring to their proper food plant. Certainly should we ever attain to the dignity of wings, there will be no occasion to emulate the ant, which, being born into that freedom, tears them from its body, the rest of its days to crawl upon the earth.