Many years ago I lived on an agricultural research station in Africa. One evening I was on my porch in Ibadan, Nigeria, having a beer and bored out of my mind when I happened to glance onto the floor. The ants in Africa are large and can be lethal. Fortunately the ones I saw that night were not Army ants. I think they must have been vegetarians.
I followed the river of ants and found they were coming out of the kitchen, across the dining room, over the sliding door tracks, onto the porch, and out a hole near the floor to the outside. I was mesmerized by them. Scouts ventured out at regular intervals to either check for danger or look for food. They would report back and another one would be dispatched.
Pretty soon I noticed a potato chip moving across the floor. Several of them had hoisted it onto their backs and were carrying it out. I couldn’t believe my eyes at first. After a while I saw another one.
This got me thinking. I just happened to be eating chips myself, although I’m pretty sure they were plantain chips. I wondered what would happen if I placed one where a scout might find it. Sure enough a scout found it. He reported back and the river actually split off!! None of them missed a step. They picked up the chip and rejoined the parade. I was amazed.
That same summer I went on a day trip to a large forest in western Nigeria in a pick-up truck, with six other people. The trip to the forest was pretty uneventful with the usual bickering between friends about the problems with transporting orchids. At one point, I was watching everybody gathered around a tree stump discussing the orchid growing on it and suddenly I realized I was being eaten alive by army ants, also called driver ants.
The driver ants are one of the largest and most vicious ants on earth. They have a hard outside armor which makes it difficult to kill them, you can’t just step on them. They have sharp pinchers instead of front legs, are carnivorous and can devour a lizard within seconds. Their colonies are made up of millions of ants so in order to keep everybody fed, they are nomadic and will consume everything in their path. They eat mostly insects and worms but will attack anything.
The ants crawl up your legs inside your pants (unless you are smart and tuck your pants into your socks) and when they reach the thigh or pelvic area, they latch on! And they hurt! You can’t just brush them off; you have to pull them off. I had to completely take my pants off to get rid of them. I learned two valuable lessons that day: Always tuck your pants into your socks; Never stand in one place too long.
Another friend of mine loved to take his father’s car out onto the dirt roads and look for army ants. When he would see a river of them crossing the road, he would speed up and then slam on the breaks to slide the car over them. I don’t think it did much damage, they seemed to continue on their way unfazed. He got a thrill out of it, though. He is the same guy who had to have an army ant surgically removed from his hand so I guess he had a grudge.
Cover image: courtesy of Simon Lawson.