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
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
These winged termites have risen
from their underground civilizations, each representing their own colonies,
from every corner of the forest, to intermingle with one another, mate, and
start their own new colonies. They are the queens and the kings who have sworn
to spread their parent colonies wider and wider, and the warm air currents of the
late summer are just perfect for them to fly long distances.
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|
Mornings reveal a battlefield.
Hundreds of dead termites and four-times the number of wings litter the
surface. But in this war-torn zone of your incandescent light, many females
have found males, and have mated. As soon as they are mated, the male dies, and
the female begins the second, and more tiring, part of their journey. She breaks
her long leathery wings using her hind legs, and seeks to bury herself in the
undergrowth where the soil is ideal for building her own colony. This female,
the queen, may then live for several years building an army of her own, with a
fortress as tall as seven feet high and just as deep, and rest in peace in the
heart of her fortress as her sister queens manage her colony. But she might
even die by that artificial light or in the undergrowth because of exhaustion,
or turn up in the jaws of predators that lurk beneath.
|A six feet tall termite mound in the forests of Kanha Tiger Reserve|
The colony is a walled city with
roads and tunnels, halls and granaries, crèches and gardens. Each and every
member contributes to its functioning – some grow fungus in the fungus gardens
for consumption, some create a mulch of wood and soil to plaster walls – and
some, like soldiers, guard the entrances– these soldiers are here for a
|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.
Another social insect prowls in the
undergrowth. Long, black, and glistening as though bathed in oil, the
individual members of this colony march in a single long chain, one after
another, which has given them their common name, the Procession Ant (Leptogenys
sp.). They form multiple,
criss-crossing highways in the undergrowth, and their colonies are usually
underground, barely visible on the outside except for a small opening that is lined
with soldiers standing with their mandibles stretched wide open.
|Two ants stand guard on a fallen strand of grass as a smaller Harvester Ant hides beneath|
A troop of Leptogenys is on a
mission. They’ve gathered a force strong enough to march towards the nearest
termite mound, to force entry into the fortress, and raid and kill. The soldier
termites, the nasutes, gather around the opening so as to block it. A battle
ensues. They squirt an acrid liquid that entraps and kills the intruder, or
thrust their beaked heads into them like a sword. The mandibulated soldiers
bite and grind the enemies to pieces – and the ants downturn their abdomens to
stab the termites by their poisoned knifes – they sting, bite and tear their
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
|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.
The undergrowth is a place hard
to comprehend. It is seemingly quiet and uneventful. Just the way a calm grassland
bursts into motion at the alarm call of a deer, so does the undergrowth. The
alarm signal here is invisible, inaudible, and unscented to us humans. It is a
pheromone specific to a single species of an ant that helps them in finding
their way to the battleground and back, and in changing their behaviour from
docile to violent.
|Weaver Ants, Oecophylla smargdina, and hunch-back ants Myrmicaria brunnea engage in a fight at the base of a tree|
Ants fight among ants as well –
mostly over shared resources – often these fights are long battles that last a
day. Arboreal ants like weaver ants (Oecophylla
) often attack hunch-back ants (Myrmicaria brunnea
), an ant which nests at the base of large trees
and blocks the movement of weaver ants. Ants also fight with ants of their own
species belonging to different colonies. If a soldier ant of Camponotus
sp. comes upon a dealate
queen (a queen ant who has shed her wings) in its territory, it fights and
tries to drive it away, but if the dealate belongs to its own colony, they
leave her alone. Quite often, only heads of rival soldiers are seen pinching
the legs of the victorious, like badges of honour.
|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.
The ecology of social insects is
much more complex than we can imagine. The caste-system of ants and termites
taught in schools is a mere simplification of natural facts. The queen can be
primary, secondary, or a gamergate; the worker can be a minor or a major, the
major also acts as a transport medium for minor workers or plays the role of a
soldier. Primary queens can be overthrown and assassinated by younger gamergate.
Some species of ants enslave other species of ants.
|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
|Dorylus sp. is a small ant, the workers are barely 10 mm in length, are blind, and seldom emerge from their underground|
colonies except during monsoon or to harvest a fallen fruit - the alates however are extremely large in size (over 1 inch)
and can be seen soon after summer showers or monsoons.
One of the nomadic species of
ants of central India is the army ant, Aenictus
sp., a rare treat to see in the dry and mix deciduous forest undergrowth. At
least two species call this landscape home. One is large, dark bodied with a
slender pale abdomen, long-footed ant, and the other is a smaller, darker in
colour. Both are known to form large raiding parties constantly on the move.
They are blind, but they are one of the fiercest forces of the undergrowth –
being able to take on insects, scorpions, even lizards, frogs, and small
|This blind Army Ant (Aenictus sp.) stands guard besides a trail of its sisters|
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|
These little civilizations are
not as aggressive as I make them sound. Ants and termites, like humans, largely
lead peaceful lives. They go about their duties with dedication to their
colony, and a majority of them seldom engage in conflict. The battles are rare
occurrences, and only a few colonies face them perhaps because of a resource
crunch. As many as five to six species of ants often live in one square meter
area in a forest undergrowth, in complete harmony, and ignore one another as
they go about their daily business just like in a large human metropolis.
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.
Other species of Pheidole
and the genus Monomorium
are harvesters – they harvest
the seeds of wild as well as domestic grasses such as rice and wheat, remove
the seed from the husk, keep the seed in the granary and leave the husks
outside the nests in a pile. Thin, long highways of harvester ants radiating
out from the stack of harvested rice and leading to a small burrow in the
ground are common in agricultural fields in the month of November.
|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.
The sheer abundance of ants and
termites has, quite naturally, led them to be exploited by other animals as
well. Besides distinctly large mammals such as the sloth bear and the pangolin
which feed primarily on ants and termites (animals which largely depend on ants
for food are called myrmecophagous), the Rufous Woodpecker, a rather uncommon
bird of central India, nests in the arboreal wood-mulched nests of the Crematogaster
sp. of ants. Several
species of the blues family of butterflies (Family Lycaenidae) exploit an ant’s
sweet tooth for honeydew. Such caterpillars have special glands called
myrmecophilus organs which open on their backs and secrete sugary liquid that
attracts ants, and the ants in turn protect them.
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
|Some common ant mimics of central India (clockwise): Dung flies in the family Sepsidae;|
a jumping spider in the genus Myrmarachne of Salticidae family;
a small ant-like beetle in the family Anthicidae; and a broad-headed bug nymph
mimicking Camponotus sp. of ant from the family Coeridae.
Some insects, such as the
hatchlings of broad-headed bugs mimic ants perhaps because looking like one
offers protection. Some assassin bugs adorn dead bodies of their ant victims on
their backs for camouflage. Some crickets and beetles live inside ant colonies
by mimicking their pheromones, and feed on food gathered by ants. Some flies
are also parasites and parasitoids of ants, and are mostly found near ant
trails or ant nests.
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.
If all the ants of the world were
weighed, they would weigh as much as humans do, claimed E. O. Wilson. This is a
direct attribute of their social life – living together. But this is not the
only reason why ants are not only so common, but also successful; their success
stems from the reason that an ant or a termite colony behaves as one single super-organism,
its functions are in tune with the welfare of the entire society. Perhaps we
should look down in the undergrowth to understand our own societies, study the
function, and how to function
in a way that is in sync with the ways of nature.
|Two major workers of Camponotus sp. interact with one another during a monsoon night.|
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
For more on ants:
And do watch Lord of the Ants
a documentary about the study of ants by Professor E. O. Wilson.
Pench Stripes magazine can be downloaded here.
Well written information .Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Excellent work! Quite impressive.ReplyDelete
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this!ReplyDelete