Chapter 3 Amazing Ants
Lupé was running through the trees when she noticed strange movement on the ground. There were three little black lines on the ground that looked like little streams of water. She could hear leaves crunching and the movement of little insects.
This was very strange.
Lupé went lower in the trees to see. It was ants. So many ants. There were hundreds and hundreds of ants! Some of them were rushing in one direction, chasing into the leaves. Others were moving in the opposite direction carrying something in their mouths. Lupé wondered where they were going.
Lupé followed the line rushing forward. Soon she came to the end of the line. All the ants were fanned out, covering the forest floor. They were running through the fallen leaves, over the rocks, and even up into the trees. There were so many ants that it looked like ground was moving.
Crickets and spiders and beetles were running away. A big leaf hopper sprung out of a log and hopped away. A small gecko skittered over a rock and ran off into a bush. The ants were following them.
Dave bounded over. "Those are army ants," he said. "They swarm, spreading out, searching for insects to eat. When they feel movement, they attack. Then, in little lines moving back and forth, they carry their prey back to their nest, the bivouac."
Some of the ants were catching the insects. Lupé saw one bite a scorpion. It hung on tight with its pinchers and other ants grabbed on too. Soon, the scorpion was covered in ants. Slowly, the ants dragged the scorpion back into the lines of ants and they carried it away.
Lupé looked around and saw other animals being caught. Some of the ants had trapped a small moth, others had a cricket, there was even a group that had caught a small grey lizard.
Lupé heard the fluttering of wings and looked up. Antbirds and great kiskadees were also watching. One of the birds swooped down and caught a spider skittering away from the ants. The birds were catching the insects as they scurried away from the ants!
Julio and Hamilton hung from low tree branches and snatched insects from the ants. Max was standing beside one of the lines headed for the nest. He grabbed some ants carrying a cricket and popped them all into his mouth. Some of the other kids were also stealing from the ants.
"CAREFUL!” barked Julio. “DON’T GO TOO CLOSE! Those ants will bite you!”
Lupé thought, “those ants must be carrying those insects back to their nest. I wonder where they live. Maybe I can see their queen!” Lupé followed the ants carrying bugs; she was certain they were going to their nest. The ants ran down the little hill, over rocks, under branches, they even crossed over the river on a fallen tree branch. Still they kept going, up the riverbank, around a little bush, up one side of a tree stump and down the other, and finally into a big bamboo patch.
The ants stopped there. Lupé saw a big black ball, bigger than a whole coconut! Lupé went down as low as she could. The ball was a cluster of ant bodies. Hundreds and hundreds of ants clutching each other. This was the bivouac, the nest of the army ants. Lupé could not see the queen, but she could see ants running through little tunnels made up of the bodies of the ants’ nest mates.
Lupé watched the ants coming and going from the bivouac. “There must be thousands,” she thought.
“Lupé come back now!," Carmen called.
"I’m coming.” Lupé called back. She leapt back through the trees, across the river and back up the hill to her family. Some of the monkeys were still stealing insects from the ants, others had moved into a big palmiche palm to eat the nuts.
Lupé wondered if all ants were army ants.
“No,” said her mother. "There are many, many kinds of ants. Most live below ground in tunnels and caves they make. Some live in trees, like the golden wood ants. Most ants live in colonies like the army ants, but others are solitary.
“Come look over here.” said her mother. Lupé watched as her mother approached a bullhorn acacia tree. The tree had a straight, thin trunk and thin, scraggily branches. The leaves were bipinnate and looked almost like feathers Along the trunk and branches were things that looked just like the horns of a bull. Some were old and brown, but the young horns were bright green.
She saw ants biting into the green horns. The ants chewed a hole into the horn and then ate the pith from inside. The ants ate and ate until the horn was hollow. She could see ants going in and out of old bullhorns. What were they doing?
Hanging by her tail, Carmen reached down and carefully broke off a leaf with a horn attached Quickly, she tore open a piece of horn. Inside were ant eggs and larvae. There were also angry adults protecting the babies! Carmen quickly ate them, and she dropped the horn. Lupé knew the yellow tips, or beltian bodies, of the leaves were very tasty and nutritious, but she had not known that the inside of the horns were homes and nurseries for the ants.
Lupé pressed her nose to her mother’s mouth and inhaled deeply. She breathed in the scent of the ants. Gently she lifted a small larva and ant from the edge of her mother’s mouth and tasted them.
“Yip! Yip!,” she squeaked. “It stings when they bite, but they taste really good.”
Lupé looked closely at the acacia tree. The leaves had swollen bumps at the base of each stem. Liquid oozed from the bumps and ants were drinking it. Her mother explained that the little bumps are called "nectaries" and that the ants were drinking nectar provided by the tree. There were also little ants collecting the yellow leaf tips and carrying them to the horns.
It seemed that the tree provided food and protection for the ants: the ants could eat the soft pith from the bullhorns to make their homes. The ants could also drink the sweet liquid that oozed from the nectaries. They even ate the leaf tips.
The ants fiercely protected the tree, biting anything that tried to harm it. The ants cut away other vegetation that grew too close, ensuring the tree would get enough sunlight, rain, and soil nutrients. If an animal tried to eat the leaves, the ants would rush out of the bullhorns and begin stinging and biting to defend their tree.
Lupé was amazed that the ants protected their tree, but it made sense. The tree gave them so much in return.
“Now, look.” said her mother. “Look over there, on the riverbank,”.
Together, Lupé and her mother bounced through the trees across the river and then down into low branches. There, along the riverbank were long, long trails of red ants rushing back and forth. Some of the ants were scurrying up tree trunks. Lupé traced the lines up the trunk and down the branches to the leaves. The ants were using their powerful mandibles to cut off little section of the leaf. Then they ran back down the tree to the ground and joined hundreds of other ants carrying pieces of leaf back to their underground tunnels.
Lupé saw seven...eight...no, eleven long trails of ants going to different trees. Some were going into the tall, umbrella shaped cenizaro trees and returning with pieces of leaves they had cut. Others were climbing into the colorful flamboyant trees and were bringing back sub-leaflets and petals from the bright orange flowers.
Lupé saw the ants carrying the plant material deep, deep underground.
“Do they eat the leaves?” she asked.
Deep underground the ants deposit the leaves onto a fungus mound. The fungus breaks down the leaf material and absorbs nutrients from the decomposing leaves. Just like the army ants, these leaf cutter ants lived in colonies. There were different castes with different jobs.
The foragers are medium-sized ants who cut leaves and bring the leaf fragments back to the nest. The smallest ants of the colony take care of the babies and feed them fungus. The main defenders of the nest are just a bit bigger than the babysitters. They patrol the area around the nest and attack any anything that threatens the foragers. They are helped by the big soldiers, who defend the nest from intruders. The soldiers also help smaller foragers by clearing large debris from the foraging trails and carrying bigger pieces of plant material to the nest.
“You mean they’re farmers?” asked Lupé .
“Yes. They gather the leaves and petals to feed the fungus. The oldest members of the colony protect the fungus from mold and parasites. There are garbage collectors who clean the nest, carrying away rotten fungus and unused plant material. Every colony has a backdoor area where they deposit the waste, away from the colony and fungus garden. The garbage workers also carry out the bodies of dead ants and lay them around the edge of the waste dump.”
Lupé looked around and, sure enough, there was an opening where some of the ants were leaving the nest and dumping small brown pellets in a trash pile.
Lupé had a lot to think about. Ants work together to get food, to protect their babies and to defend their colony. It made her think about Julio allowing her to take palm nuts he had gathered. She thought about her mother and the older troop members fighting with the Little Hill Troop, protecting the swampy area around the spring and plantain plantation. She thought about being allowed to carry her baby brother, grooming him, and playing with him. It seemed that ants had families too.
Baker, Mary E. personal observations 1991-2018
1998. Fur Rubbing as Evidence for Medicinal Plant Use by Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus capucinus) Ecological, Social, and Cognitive
Aspects of The Behavior. Thesis (Ph.D.) University of California, Riverside.