Civilizations of the Undergrowth
This article first appeared in Pench Stripes Magazine, February 2016.
The late summer showers trigger a peculiar phenomenon in the forests of central India. The air is moist; the sky a riot of blues and oranges separated by dark wobbly clouds, and the ground is moistened after a long spell of dryness. This sudden change in the temperature, humidity, and the moisture in the ground has signalled a sudden rapid change in the undergrowth.
Underneath the surface of the moisture-laden forests, a million animals await to form their own clouds. Vibrating and pulsating with fervid life, the winged termites, called alates, begin their nuptial flight, volleying into the sky as if on a mission. If you happen to be sitting in the veranda, you will witness an upheaval of countless wings silently rising upwards with the warm air that is expelled by the cooling land, gliding down to the lights on your porch, flying aimlessly in an infinite loop around an incandescent source of light. But their flight is not aimless.
|A cloud of winged termites circle an incandescent bulb in the porch -|
a common sight during the pre-monsoon showers
Yet they are stymied by the light on your porch. And nobody knows why. Scientists have put forth several theories for this behaviour, such as for navigation, for warmth, because of their innate attraction to UV light, or because of confusing the wavelengths emitted by the light source for a mate; perhaps all of them are true, but the termites that revolve around an incandescent light are led into a trap – mantises, assassin bugs, geckos and lizards lie in wait to make a quick, easy meal out of them.
|An Assassin Bug preys on the fallen winged termites|
|A six feet tall termite mound in the forests of Kanha Tiger Reserve|
|A hunting trail of Leptogenys sp. - a common ant of India's forests. The four members standing outside the trail are guarding|
against intruders - including humans.
|Two ants stand guard on a fallen strand of grass as a smaller Harvester Ant hides beneath|
The ants breach the walls of the fortress, and kill whatever that stalls their path, but the termites are able to overpower the invaders by their sheer numbers, and the ants retreat with bodies of their enemies as food for their colony. I’ve often found such raiding parties carrying one or even three bodies of termites in their mandibles, all the way back to their nest.
Ants and termites are like sworn enemies. But their enmity is not the result of a feud or revenge – it is an ecologically-driven relationship where one social insect controls the spread of the other, and both compete with one another for resources such as food and space. Several species of the arboreal ant Crematogaster sp. have been observed raiding ground-dwelling termite colonies. It is said that the ants raid termites not with an intention to annihilate them, but as an attempt to control their population as much as it is I think to showcase their strength.
|Crematogaster ants attacking a Termite colony - the termites appear to block an entrance inside their nest as a lone|
soldier Crematogaster stings one in the neck.
|Weaver Ants, Oecophylla smargdina, and hunch-back ants Myrmicaria brunnea engage in a fight at the base of a tree|
|A group of worker termites tend to a secondary queen termite which will be fed and prepared for its first long flight at|
the beginning of the monsoon. Notice the wing buds on the larger queen, which are absent on the workers.
|These Weaver Ants had formed a bridge joining the main trunk of Mahua tree with its branch for easy transport of food.|
Some form living bridges between two branches, some boats to float on water, some chains to pull prey, and some form nests by linking their own bodies, head-to-tail. Some weave leaves together, some mulch wood, some dwell in rock crevasses, and some dwell underground – and some, rarely if ever, come to the surface except for their alates. Some hunt, some farm, some visit flowers, some scavenge, and some domesticate.
Their nomadic existence makes them hard to see, and once you’ve seen them in a particular place, they will be long gone until your next visit – they however tend to nest temporarily in places with an exposed tangle of roots and in rocky areas with many small crevasses. Chances of finding them here are possible.
|A trail of Harvester Ants, Monomorium sp., leads back to the underground nest - the small hole to the left of the photo is the entrance, and the husk lying around the hold is a tell-tale sign of the nest of Harvester Ants|
The lone or pair of ants we often see in our veranda are scouting ants in search of a food source. Once the scout has found a food source, it estimates its size and goes back to its nest, communicates the information to its members, and follows back to the food source. On this second trip, often more than three and as many as twelve ants are at its tail, nudging the scout to proceed – a walk myrmecologists call ‘in tandem’ – to the food source and take it back to the nest.
There are some which have chosen the simple life of scavengers and harvesters. Some species of ants in the genus Pheidole are especially selective about their scavenging – they often scavenge bodies of the large Camponotus sp. of ants, and seem to decorate their ground nest entrances with the heads of these ants, perhaps as a grotesque warning to the enemy!
|The nest entrance of another type of Harvester Ants, Pheidole sp., appears|
to be adorned with heads of the larger Camponotus sp. of ants. They are
commonly observed along forest paths.
|A Rufous Woodpecker female, photographed in 2008 in Mumbai, is a rather|
uncommon woodpecker of central India. They are known for their unusual habit
of nesting inside the tree-nests of Crematogaster ants.
Many species of jumping spiders in the genus Myrmarachne mimic ants, and are often species-specific mimics, like masked infiltrators that prey on ants. The antlions build sand traps in strategic locations where movement of ants is common, and some areas appear as minefields for ants – one missed step and they fall inside the collapsible walls, and into the wide jaws of this ambush hunter.
These infiltrators, imposters, and misfits dwell alongside such social insects largely because they gain something from one of the most efficient colonizers of the undergrowth. Many myrmecologists, evolution scientists, and even urban planners are turning to ants and termites to understand their efficient ways of societal cohesion, architecture, resource utilization, and even road traffic regulation.
|A foraging party of Pheidole sp.: Some species of ants are known to form walls around their foraging pathways, probably|
for protection and to ease the flow of the to-and-fro traffic.
We really need to lie down in the grass once in a while and observe these enchanting inhabitants of the undergrowth – see them go to work each day, greet each other with their inquisitive elbowed antennae as if shaking hands, clean their homes, and look after one another. In appreciating these small wonders we’ll begin to understand the little threads that make the vast web of life, held together by an unseen force we like to call by many names, but more so to witness a force way simpler but ever so overwhelming – the force of oneness that binds us all, ant and human alike, together.
For more on ants:
On a Trail with Ants: A Handbook of the Ants of Peninsular India by Ajay Narendra and Sunil Kumar M
Antbase.net by Martin Pfeiffer
Ants of India by Dr Himender Bharti
And do watch Lord of the Ants, a documentary about the study of ants by Professor E. O. Wilson.
Also read Story of the Yellow Crazy Ant.