Ants attack me. I attack ants. I didn’t know their eggs are considered a delicacy.

April 8, 2006

An electrical wire runs head-high through my tent. That’s “head-high” when measured against the Lao guy who strung the wire. I catch it under my chin several times a day. Each time I clothesline myself, the wire twangs like a guitar string and pitches the ants that are walking on the wire off into the wild blue yonder.

Don’t feel sorry for the ants. Every ant that I’ve tracked has hit the ground running. Not having much to do in camp after the sun goes down, I’ve found time to ponder the size of the ant in comparison to the height of the wire. Those falling ants experience a drop that would be equal to a dive from a height of 720 feet for me! Obviously, I would not hit the ground running.

The wire-walking ants come and go. Until a day ago, it looked as if just as many ants were taking the wire route out of my tent as were coming in. The ants heading east were just as eager and earnest as the ants heading west. It’s not as if some were carrying heavy loads while others were returning empty-handed. What interested me was that, when ants passed each other coming and going on the wire, they appeared to great each other. They always stopped briefly to butt heads. Perhaps they were delivering messages to one another. I suspect they are checking to see if they are residents of the same nest. I doubt that they use “language” as we think of it. Mostly likely, they communicate through gestures, body language, or the smell of body chemicals.

If I had an encyclopedia here, I could do some research and learn more about insect communication. If any Wausau, Everest, or Stevens Point students have the resources to research ant behavior, I’d appreciate hearing from them. In fact, I could post their findings here on this web site for other people around the country to read.

My ants are red ants. They are about a half-inch long, and it doesn’t take much to provoke them to bite. They climb up my pant leg and then bite me in revenge for having my leg in my own pants. When they bite, they cannot be brushed away. You have to pull them off. When you pull on them, you usually end up breaking their body away from their head, which continues to bite on your skin.

Someone told me that here in Laos most of the ants that are red live in trees, while the black ants live in the ground. That would explain the amazing feat I observed a week ago: 50 red ants organized themselves into a work party that carried a dead dragon fly up the trunk of a tree. I was impressed with how the ants organized themselves into teams of pushers and pullers. The dragonfly was huge compared to the ants. Those ants carrying that dragonfly were probably equivalent to ten students carrying a pickup truck across the playground.

When I observed this weight-lifting feat, I didn’t know that the ants had a home among the tree leaves. I wondered if they had become confused and were somehow going up the tree instead of down. Later, a guy in camp pointed out many unusual nests in the tree next to my tent. I realized then that I was surrounded by thousands, if not millions, of ants.

Their nests were another remarkable example of teamwork. The ants choose to live in trees that have clusters of leaves emerging from a common point on a twig. Somehow, the ants get themselves organized and cooperatively pull the leaves together, like fingers closing to make a fist. In the middle of this sealed “fist,” the ants live as a community.

I thought of a simple way to get rid of the ants. The tree contained at least a dozen nests. My plan was to snip each nest from its branch and quickly drop it into a bucket of water. The guys in camp didn’t want me to do that. They insisted that this was not the proper time in the life cycle of the ants to collect the nests. They explained that the ant’s eggs make a great meal when collected at just the right time.

I decided to follow the advice of the guys in camp and leave the nests alone. The few bite’s I had received were not a big problem. The stings are only bothersome if you get them under a ring or watchband, or on an ear or other tender part of the body.

The next day I regretted not making a sneak attack on the nests, because they made a sneak attack on me. Silently and unobserved, hordes of ants left their nests in the tree and charged my tent. The wire became so congested with ants that they hung in big globs from it. At the place where the wire entered my tent, ants got backed up in a huge traffic jam. If I had been brave enough to scoop them up in my hands, I could have collected them in big, double-handed scoops.

The camp guard, who was brave enough, disregarded the stings and did use his bare hands to grab globs of ants and plunge them into a bucket of water. It was men against ants for nearly half an hour until the tide of battle finally turned in favor of the humans. Many, many ants remained in my tent but a vast number had met their death in the water bucket. When the fight was over and the excitement was over, I asked the guard why the ants had all decided to move into my tent.

The guard didn’t hesitate a second before answering, “It’s going to rain tomorrow.”

And guess what? For the first day in two weeks, it did.

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