A Cape Cod Notebook 7/10/07

listenAnt War

By Robert Finch

One peaceful, sunny morning earlier this month, I stepped out of the front door and into the middle of a violent war. It was an ant battle, and one of no mean proportions. The ground in front of me was thickly covered with hundreds of ants scurrying about in seemingly random motion. They were mostly small red ants about 3/8" long. On closer look, I saw a number of larger black ants engaged in battle with some of the reds. Most of the other red ants were emerging from the ground carrying white naked ant larvae in their mandibles.

This "war" covered nearly half the front yard, and I stood watching it in fascination for several minutes, trying to figure out what was going on. Knowing practically nothing about ants, I assumed that the red ant colony had been invaded by the blacks, who had gotten down into the red ants nursery, causing panic and sending the reds into a massive rescue effort to move their young larvae to safety.

Two aspects of the battle, however, threw some doubt into this theory. First, if the blacks were the invaders, they seemed strangely non-aggressive. There were no pitched battles between individual black and red ants, only what seemed some harrying tactics by the reds. Moreover, the blacks made no attempt to take the larvae away from the red ants. The other thing was that the red ants carrying the larvae were retreating in a swath of organized columns five or six feet wide. I followed this swath of red ants across the yard where, carrying their white larvae burdens, they disappeared down into other ant mounds.

At this point I decided to do some research, and after perusing several books on the subject, an explanation of the morning's events began to emerge that was much stranger than my ignorant surmises about ant-warfare. War among ants is indeed a widespread phenomenon, and has been chronicled since antiquity. But even more common is the practice of ant slavery, and what I had been witnessing was likely a slave raid, not by the blacks, but by the reds. These black ants are relatively docile in nature, and tolerate the more aggressive reds in their territories. From time to time, however, the red ants make coordinated invasions of the black ants' nurseries for the purpose of stealing their young. Strangely enough, the blacks offer little resistance, and, unlike true ant warfare, these slave raids rarely result in deaths on either side.

The black larvae are carried back to the nests of the red ants, where a number of them are eaten by the colony. But those that are allowed to hatch seem color-blind to their black heredity. Like the legendary white-child captives of Indian raids, these abducted black ants live out their lives as accepted members of the red ant community, spending most of their lives helping to feed and harvest food for their captors.

So ? I had exchanged my interpretation from "warfare" to "slavery," but where was I? A little closer to scientific accuracy, perhaps, but really no closer to the nature of the experience. How passive the victims seemed to be, how almost unaware of their invaders. Did the red ants feel "masterful," or the black ants "downtrodden"? Did they feel anything at all, in any remote human sense of the word? Could one imagine an ant abolitionist? No, they were still puzzles, red and black hieroglyphics of a summer saga, written in an ancient tongue I had neither the wit nor perception to read.

Broadcast on July 10, 2007