All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all. Cecil F. Alexander
This was a hymn we sang at the morning assembly at our school. During my vacation in Kerala in April 2017, these lines came back to my mind as I took a stroll through the farmland behind our home. Three small but great creatures caught my attention. They are not great because the Lord God made them all, but because they were my companions as I grew up as a child.
The very first is the Antlion. It is surely neither an ant nor a lion, else a little three year old kid could not have played with them. The Antlion is called so because it feeds on ants and hence is like a ‘lion’ for the ants. In Malayalam it is called കുഴിയാന – Kuzhiyana – meaning an elephant in a pit. It is surely not an elephant, but its hump looks like that of an elephant and it did live in a conical pit. In North America, Antlions are called ‘doodlebugs’, because of the doodles they leave on the sand while looking for a suitable spot to dig its pit. It is in fact the larval form of a dragonfly.
A fully developed Antlion is about a centimeter long, with a larval life cycle similar to that of a caterpillar. At the end of the larva stage, it spins a cocoon and after a few days an adult a dragonfly emerges.
Antlions like to set their pits in places where it is dry and where the soil particles are loose and small. They dig a circular, funnel-shaped pit and hide at the bottom of it. When an unsuspecting ant falls into the pit, the Antlion grabs it with its jaws. The prey cannot escape the pit because the wall is crumbly. As the prey tries to climb up, the grainy wall crumbles down.
Antlion with its bean-shaped body and ant like head appear to move rearwards. As a child, I used to locate Antlions’ pits and blow the sand away with my mouth. As the sand blew away, exposing the Antlion, it would further dig deep down to escape until I caught it. The Antlions caught would be stored in an empty matchbox. After a few of these creatures were caught, I used to line them up like elephants paraded during Thrissur Pooram. The Thrissur Pooram is held in the city of Thrissur in central Kerala (India) and is a cultural highlight that is unique in its pageantry, magnitude and participation. 30 elephants are paraded on this occasion, attired with the traditional Nettipattam (golden headdress), decorative bells and ornaments, decorated umbrellas, palm leaves and peacock feathers, and beautifully-crafted kolam (paintings).
The Antlions grow into dragonflies and would flutter around in search of insects, their staple food. As a kid, I chased and caught a few of them and tied a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights. Then I would prompt the dragonfly to pick up small pebbles and increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more. This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.
The next creature is the dangerous നീർ – Neer – The Red Weaver Ants . They are found in the tropical forests of Africa, Australia and the Solomon Islands. In India I have found them only in Kerala. All animals, insects, birds and humans are scared of them because of the painful bite they inflict. They are very aggressive territorial ants and tend to be very aggressive and responsive to disturbance. They have a vice like grip and tremendous strength while inflicting a painful slicing bite. With the bite they spray formic acid into the resulting wounds.
They are seen in almost all fruit trees in our farmland, mainly the mango and jackfruit trees. They are natural insect killers as they feast on the fruit flies that hover around these trees. It takes a few minutes for a fruit fly to find a suitable spot on the mango and inject her eggs under the skin of the fruit and make the fruit rot. The weaver ants on these trees chase them away or capture them. When other insects, squirrels or birds detect the scent of weaver ants, they prefer to stay away.
The only catch is that when one needs to climb these trees to get the fruits down. Then one has to apply a strong insect repellent – usually kerosene – and carry a bag full of ash. As one climbs up the tree, ash is spread all around to keep these weaver ants at bay.
These weaver ants are famous for the elaborate treetop nests they build. They are champions of cooperation when it comes to building a nest. They build nests by stitching five to ten leaves together using larval silk. They first find a suitable location on a treetop and then bend down the leaves and place them in a tent like shape. Holding down such leaves demand the force of a thousand ants, each drawing down with all his might and the others fasten the joints to build a spacious nest that protects their colony from impending danger of predators.
Using precise coordination, the weaver ants create very strong ant chains by linking legs to pull and bend leaves into desired tent like positions. Then they glue them with silk. The silk comes from their own larvae. The adults carry larvae in their jaws and squeeze them gently so that the larvae secrete a drop of silk on one end of the leaf edges. The ants then carry the larvae along the entire length of the leaf edges, squeezing as they go, using the larvae like living bottles of glue, until the edges of the leaves are stuck together from end to end.
Weaver ants live in a highly organized, co-operative society, where every individual has a role to play in the survival of the entire colony. Their jobs are based on their physique and they execute the tasks with utmost sincerity and discipline. Those in charge of food bring anything edible back to their colony to feed other ants. They also have a workers army who construct the nests and repair them and very aggressively protect the nests filled with ants and their eggs.
As a child, I used to stand next to the mango tree and observe these ants at work. I used to talk to them, reporting what all happened at home. This time I did watch them curiously, but had nothing to talk to them.
Photographs Courtesy Sherrin Koduvath