army ants

African Ants



Many years ago I spent my summers  between semesters at college at 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 with six other people in a pick-up truck.  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.

Army ants have pinchers instead of front legs, are carnivorous and can devour a lizard within seconds.  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 actually pull them off.  I had to completely take my pants off to get rid of them.

Another friend of mine used to love 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!