Social networking – weaver ant style

“If aliens landed on earth they wouldn’t say take me to your (human) leader. They’d say, take me to your ant leader.” Ants are such amazing creatures – we were treated to some of nature’s finest ingenuity at work every morning for a couple of weeks on our walks. We tracked down that these were weaver ants and that we were witnessing something very special. Here’s our photography documentation of them.

The queen mother ant weighs about the same as a few grains of salt. But along with her followers and the other queens and their empires they would equal the weight of the 7 billion people on the planet. The queens and their off spring have been living in organised armies for over 50,000 years. We’ve been around for about 10,000 years.

While taking Abroozi for a walk early one morning we noticed this conical, ball like nest among the branches of a smallish tree. The leaves had been pasted together with what looked like a kind of sticky white fibre. Coming out of the nest were red ants that looked like fire ants. The whole thing baffled us because the leaves of the tree. although thin and flexible, were bent against gravity. How could these ants that weigh so little bend the leaves against gravity? Little did we know we had stumbled in to the amazing world of weaver ants.

Conical soccer ball shaped weaver ant nest

Conical soccer ball shaped weaver ant nest

So we looked it up and we found out about the remarkable society of weaver ants. According to the National Geographic website ‘a hierarchy of workers and soldiers maintains and defends these nests, which spreads from treetops to the forest floor, staying in sync through constant communication. They touch each other with mouths, forelegs, or antennae. They lay down scents with different glands to send different messages. They release more pheromones into the air to broadcast signals quickly and widely.’ This is social networking, weaver ant style.

They even display symbolic behaviour to warn of an approaching enemy. For instance, they jerk their bodies in a kind of ritualized fight. This is exactly what they were doing as they sensed the DH approaching very close with the camera lens. We thought they were dancing, turns out it was a warning.

Agitated weaver ants alerted by our presence

Agitated weaver ants alerted by our presence

This is how these ants which weigh barely that of a few grains of salt, build their nests. A “single worker stands on a leaf and reaches to grasp the edge of another leaf nearby. If the span is too great, a second worker climbs over the first, and the bottom ant grasps the newcomer by its wire-thin waist and holds it out closer to the goal. Still not enough? A third ant clambers over the first two and is lifted out farther yet. Ant by ant, a living chain grows into thin air like the arm of a construction crane. Once the distant leaf is grabbed, the squad pulls in unison, often with nest mates that have formed parallel chains and reinforcing cross-links, to draw the leaves’ edges together. Workers begin to array themselves like live staples along the seam between the leaves, legs holding on to one edge, jaws gripping the other.”

While we didn’t get to see these ant cranes in action, we were able to see a new nest, probably one of the inner chambers in the beginning stages of construction.

Beginnings of a new nest

Beginnings of a new nest

ants in a new nest

ants in a new nest

As evening comes on and the humidity rises, more workers arrive from nearby nests. They’re carrying larvae that are about to enter the pupal stage and metamorphose into adults. These larvae do their share of the work. The larger ants tap the larvae heads and a sticky silk saliva is secreted which sticks the leaves together. The Queen ant resides inside one of the many chambers of the nest and produces eggs that hatch into larvae some of which become reproductive males and females.

‘Ants serve as models in all kinds of studies aimed at figuring out how big, complex jobs get done with small parts and a minimum of instructions. Urban planners examine the organization of ant societies. Mathematicians draw upon analyses of ant behaviour to devise parallel computing formulas (where multiple problems are solved simultaneously).’

We were still unable to believe that these ants that weigh close to nothing could defy gravity and bend a leaf. ‘Entomologist Mark Moffett tries to explain how weaver ants operate in an Einsteinian universe where space bends and warps. “Mentally shrink yourself to ant size and set out walking on a leaf. It’s a two-dimensional plane, except that it curves and twists and after a while suddenly falls off into thin air. No matter, you just climb over the edge and keep walking on the underside, then wend your way down a stem to another curling green surface.”

“Weaver ants weigh so little, they’re scarcely affected by gravity,” Moffett says. “The rocking of branches in the wind is a stronger force to them, so they often don’t know which way is down. But if an ant wants to go from one tree to the next, there’s a huge gap relative to its size. It might have to travel all the way to the ground, back up again, and then out on another branch. What the weaver ant often does, though, is get a bunch of buddies together to form an air bridge and cross directly to the other side.”

I like Moffett’s “Ants in Star Wars hyperspace theory, short-circuiting the usual rules of time and gravity.” Whenever you see an ant crawling around ‘be reminded that nature has invented many ways for animals to be powerful and multitudes of ways for them to be smart.’

Nest disbanded

Silk saliva of weaver ants

About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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5 Responses to Social networking – weaver ant style

  1. Pingback: Weaver Ants in action – part deux | nonsense girl

  2. Joyce Thomas says:

    I do read many of your blogs , certainly not all, for lack of time.
    I am in awe of the way you write and express yourself.
    Makes every topic you write so worth the read.
    And appreciate the lovely photography by the DH.

  3. mnsteger says:

    Thanks for sharing what your curiosity turned up : )

  4. The National Geographic website was my source for this piece. we were very fortunate to see them in action.

  5. nandini korula says:

    What an interesting post-so informative and indeed so well written. I was reminded of the spider and its intricate web spinning- the webs stretching across seemingly impossible spans of space- Each time i run a stick to clear a cobweb i marvel at its tensile strength and its geometric pattern- i wonder at the agility with which the spider weaves- the pattern in a series of lines crisscrossing , getting larger and larger as it moves towards the periphery.
    And to think- if one just stops to think- this wonder is all around us –
    I am glad you discovered the weaver ants- an enriching experience- ,@

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