Thursday, 20 September 2012

Haystack of Needles

After lunch I climbed back to camp and tied back the fly on my tent to air it out. Ants had begun to crawl all over it, on the fly and under the fly and all over the tent itself, though few entered, even when I forgot to zip the door. They were thatching ants (Formica obscuripes), red-helmeted workforce of a well-stomped hill twenty feet east, on the ravine's edge; I had apparently pitched the tent on one of their highways. As summer progressed the hill grew, two feet or higher, into a graceful, peaceful haystack of needles. No elk kicked it over while my tent remained in the clearing; cowed by my presence, the herd no longer crossed the deep green canyon.

Thatching ants are particularly fond of Douglas fir forests, with their relatively dry ground and limitless supply of fallen needles for mound building, and so their colonies dotted the overgrown tree farm thirty yards south; on its sun-warmed edges they stood like checkpoints along a frontier. As summer ripened their crews were everywhere, scavenging dead insects and fallen leaves, single-file columns marching great distances with bits of lichen and straw and well-dried fir needles held high, for the further glorification of their metropolis. Like most thatching ants, theirs was a multi-racial society: large workers from a "major" strain worked side by side with smaller "minors". There seemed no further distinction.

How large that society might have been was a matter of some speculation. Thatching ants are known to form mighty commonwealths, spanning two hundred hills and fifty-six million citizens. Militia of one mound will not attack members of another, though each lay at the farthest-flung corners of the confederation. No-one knows how they conclude these treaties, or to what advantage, but the fact remains that ants are not only like us in that they alone, among non-human creatures, wage war; they can also evolve beyond it.

So the Bodhi Tree Dominion might have been the bulwark of a great Plantation League, an embattled outpost on the cusp of their cosmos. Whatever their horizon, I drew consolation from the knowledge that my ango had visibly reduced the suffering of at least one world.


Domain of the Thatching Ant - Part 1

It's not every day one of our own workaday nontropical species gets the Life on Earth treatment. This ten-minute documentary by David Louis Quinn is a mesmerising glimpse into the civic life of thatching ants. (Take that, David Attenborough!) Give it a click; the photography alone is stunning.


(Text adapted from 100 Days on the Mountain, copyright RK Henderson. Photos courtesy of Matthew Priebe [thatching ant worker close-up], Lynette Schimming [thatching ant colony], and BugGuide.)
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