Timothy McGrath has a PhD from Harvard University. He is now a Lecturer in History and Literature at Harvard and specializes in the history of animal advocacy.
December 4th was International Cheetah Day. Ho hum. I barely noticed because I was celebrating International Ant Day, just like I do every day.
We should be living in awe and fear of these tiny little guys. They do amazing things. Let's visit their tiny kingdom and see the amazing things they can do!
Here are 5 of the most amazing ants on Earth.
1) Driver ant
One of the most terrifying species of all the species on Earth is the driver ant. These central and east African natives are called the safari ant, or the siafu ant in Swahili. They have giant heads and giant jaws. They form massive swarms and will kill you.
They are nomadic conquerors, like tiny little Mongols. They don’t build complicated ant colonies (though they build temporary colonies) and hang around for the rest of their boring little lives. Up to 50 million of them will swarm up when they need food. With a brisk marching speed of 66 feet per hour, you best run (or at least walk at a leisurely pace) or you’ll end up like this grasshopper.
(Karmesinkoenig / Wikimedia Commons)
Not awed? Not afraid? Watch these driver ants build a giant ant bridge made of their own ant bodies to cross water and then KILL A CRAB.
It’s not always this awesome being a driver ant. Are you a male driver ant? Well, then life kind of sucks for you. For example, when it's time for queen ants to mate, an army of drivers will ambush you, tear off your wings and carry you back to the queen who will have her way with you until you die.
Other interesting and scary fact: the jaws of driver ants are so strong that some tribes in east Africa use driver ants as emergency suture.
2) Leafcutter ant
(Geoff Gallice/Wikimedia Commons)
Leafcutters are way stronger than you. They get their name because they use their massive jaws to tear away pieces of living vegetation. They then use their insane strength to carry haul that is up to 20-times their body weight back to their nests.
Lifting isn’t the only thing leafcutters are better at than you. They are also better gardeners. You figured they’re eating those giant leaves? Nope, they’re composting them until they grow fungus: a fungus that can only survive in their nest and that is apparently delicious.
These bacterial horticulturists eat 20 percent of the total annual vegetation growth of South American forests. But they deserve it, because they are growing lots of that vegetation themselves.
3) Honeypot ant
(Derrick Coetzee/Wikimedia Commons)
These guys are kind of awesome and also kind of disgusting. You’ll find them in the desert regions of Australia, Africa and North America. Honeypot ants get their name because some of them gorge on nectar and honeydew until their abdomen (called a gaster) becomes massively bloated and then other ants feed on them.
These caste of ants, known as “repletes,” store the delicious sweets for when the nest is low on food. Hungry ants will stroke a replete’s antenna and it will respond by puking up some sugary goodness. The gaster never shrinks to its original size, so most repletes die soon after their store of food has been used up.
That’s seriously on some dystopian sci-fi level right there.
4) Acacia ant
(Ryan Somma/Wikimedia Commons)
Acacia ants live in Central America. They are ecological heroes and tragic addicts. They get their name because of their alliance with the Acacia tree. The tree produces delicious nectar and the ants show their gratitude by living in the tree as bodyguards, defending it from a variety of threats.
What a beautiful friendship, right? Not exactly.
It turns out the Acacia trees's nectar contains an enzyme that produces chemical dependency in the ants. So they are basically drugged up captives working for their next fix.
A remarkable story of ecological symbiosis that turned out to be a horrifying case of kidnapping and chemical brainwashing.
5) Bullet ant
(Geoff Gallic/Wikimedia Commons)
Last but definitely, definitely, definitely not least: the bullet ant. The bullet ant lives in the rainforests of South America. They can be over an inch long and have the most powerful sting of any other insect, according to the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which ranks stings on a scale of 1 to 4+.
The index was devised by Justin Schmidt, a biologist from Arizona, who allowed himself to be stung by over 150 insects. The bullet ant beat out the Tarantula Hawk and Warrior Wasp for worst sting.
According to Schmidt, the Tarantula Hawk’s sting feels like a 20,000 volt shock. A sting from the bullet ant, on the other hand, will “make you want to lay down and die,” he said. “You are just screaming in pain and agony.” Other victims have said the sting feels like being shot, hence the name, bullet ant.
In Brazil, the Satere-Mawe people practice a male coming-of-age ritual that involves woven gloves packed with bullet ants. Boys must keep their hands in the gloves for ten minutes to become a warrior. It’s apparently a pretty unpleasant thing that involves paralysis, days of uncontrollable shaking, wanting to lay down and die, and screaming in pain and agony.
Not convinced that ants are amazing? Watch renowned Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson demonstrate how ants use chemical trails to communicate information and guide each other. Sure, it's not exactly killing a crab that's a thousand times your size but it's pretty amazing.