Chimpanzees share 99% of their DNA with us humans. But I obviously cannot observe chimps during a pandemic unless I have been quarantined in Gombe Reserve, where Jane Goodall had carried out her ground-breaking studies on chimpanzees. So, when I was pondering over which creature has many similarities with humans, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, I realised that I had to look no further than the four walls and the floor of my house.

Ants! They know every nook and cranny of the house better than me. I could identify three different kinds of them in the house. Practically, the lockdown had had no effect on them; maybe they are happier since there are many fallen titbits for them to carry off to their headquarters!

That surely does not mean that ants are completely dependent on our leftovers for their food. Infact, some species can grow crops for their colony and others have their own version of milk – whole as well as skimmed! They build structures equivalent to towering skyscrapers and tunnels which may seem like labyrinths to us. In a sense, they have wi-fi and they also embody some of the vices that humans are infamous for. Most important of all, ants carry out every anti-epidemic action they can to protect their colony, take care of their ill mates and do not shy away from making decisions.

Confused about whom I am talking? I am still rambling over ants.

In South America, the Leaf-cutter ants symbolise the very essence of the saying “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” by Lal Bahadur Shastri. They are fierce farmers. Each leaf-cutter ant colony has a basement which they use exclusively for cultivating fungi. The fungal bed needs to be kept moist and clean. For this purpose, large soldier ants set out along with small ones specialised in leaf-cutting. The latter slice the leaves with their razor-sharp teeth into manageable D-shaped pieces. Then, they carry these back home, cordoned by the soldier ants which are on constant lookout for attacks. Back home, porter ants cut the leaves into smaller pieces, which are converted into mulch by even smaller ants. Even tinier ones spread the mulch as compost on the fungal bed, which is constantly tended by nearly microscopic ants. Supper time! One female ant destined to become the queen extracts a patch of fungi and sets off to establish her own colony of leaf-cutter ants.

Isn’t it a little hard to believe that there can be vegan insects in the heart of one of the world’s deadliest forests? Well, let’s move on to vegetarian pastoralists who are keen on keeping fit. Mind you, these ants can be a menace to human farmers.

Mahatma Gandhi had said, “A civilisation can be judged by the way it treats its animals.” Who treats livestock better than nomadic ants? These ants offer protection to aphids, a nasty agricultural pest, against ladybugs, their natural predators. The aphids in return, secrete sweet honeydew for the ants to drink. The ants ‘milk’ the aphids by coaxing them with their antennae to secrete more of it. However, the honeydew is high in sugars and low in nitrogen. Since ants require a proteinaceous diet, they carry the aphids in their mouth to newer pastures where there are younger plants, rich in amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. When the aphids feed on the sap of young plants, they produce honeydew with more proteins. Thus, the ants corral the aphids to new crops every time their diet falls short of amino acids. Some ants go one step further by constructing stables from bamboo leaves for their aphids. Some species of these nomadic ants depend completely on honeydew while others supplement their food by foraging.

Aphid farming, unlike animal husbandry, does not mean that the ants eat the aphids. They take utmost care of them. But the army ants, better beware, are strictly non-vegetarian. Their menu consists of anything that can move or cannot escape – ranging from spiders, scorpions, wasps and snakes to chicks in their nests. There are so many ants in an army that scientists collectively call them a ‘super-organism’. The ants march for fifteen days and then camp for twenty days. They divide themselves and radiate from the campsite in their foraging operations, declaring war on anything and everything they encounter on their path. They terrorise the forest and pulverise the prey with their formidable numbers. If they catch a whiff of another army ant troop in the vicinity, they construct a chemical Line of Control in the air, which when crossed, comes with fatal consequences. So, both the troops respect the LOC and continue combing through their own territory, unlike what had recently happened on the India-China border.

Ants communicate completely with the help of chemicals called pheromones. These chemicals can be considered equivalent to our wi-fi. But the effect of these signals can reach only up to a limited distance, which is more than enough for the ants. The message is delivered strong and clear to the ecosystem they are encompassed in.

However, not all ants are hardworking and independent like the one in “The Ant and the Cricket”. Slave-maker ants uphold slavery and depend on slaves for everything including eating. Their only job is to induct more ants into slavery. Slavery is infrequent in ants and only 50 out of 1500 species are known to be slave-makers. These European slave-maker ants simply raid another colony of ants and kidnap their brood. The residents do not face attack unless they stay and put up a fight. If the slave-making business is already high in the neighbourhood, the adult ants flee, leaving their brood to the tender mercies of the slave-makers. The larvae are then carried by the slave-maker ants to their adda where they hatch to become born slaves. They are forced to undertake housekeeping and foraging duties and are not allowed to reproduce. Then, the slave-makers set out on another kidnapping expedition. Although slavery has been abolished in the human society, its remnants had just resurfaced in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement. Scientists studying slave-making ants have also found out that the slave ants try to fight for their freedom and are known to tear apart and destroy the brood of the slave-makers. But nobody knows which direction evolution might take.

With ants like us in so many ways, or we like them, what do you think they would have done if they were standing in our shoes now? Well, given the chance, they probably wouldn’t have landed as bad as us. Scientists have actually used the ant model to study the transmission of pathogens.

When ants were infected with a pathogenic fungus which is potent enough to kill an entire colony, they immediately sense the danger they are in. Mainly, they do not underestimate the gravity of the situation. Since an ant colony comprises professionals equipped to perform different tasks like foraging and nursing, the ants minimise contact between different kinds of workers when exposed to the pathogen. In other words, the ants which venture outside to look for food interact more among themselves and physically avoid the nursing ants to stop the infection from spreading. The nurses in turn communicate more with other nurses. This can be compared to social distancing but it also has to be noted that this sudden change in behaviour does not really hamper the functioning of the colony.

Synonymous with sanitisers, ants copiously use chemicals, especially formic acid to disinfect themselves. They keep themselves and their colony very clean, not only to curb an epidemic but also during normal times. However, ants also display antagonistic behaviour like destroying their own brood when infection strikes. This is done to prevent the pathogen from lingering inside the colony. But this too can be compared to the closure of schools with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to avert the spread of coronavirus through children, who are usually asymptomatic.

Inspite of the fact that there are not really any special healthcare workers in ant societies, ants do take care of their sick companions. The adults nurse them back to health. Then, they are allowed to mingle with other ants and subsequently transmit vital immune defences to them. If they are not able to recover from the illness, they are killed. A passive version of this last-ditch attempt was reported when doctors from Italy and some other countries literally had to choose which patients to save and whom to let go of.

Thus, epidemics are very rare in ants. Human behaviour in society is similar to ants, which are social insects. Not only humans but many other creatures also mimic ants, by evolving to look like them. They may do this in order to scare off predators which usually steer clear of ants or to prey upon the ants themselves or by producing chemicals just like theirs.

On an average, ants form 15-20% of the total terrestrial biomass on Earth. Woefully, they are almost always in conflict with humans. Unlike human-animal conflict in the case of wild cats, ungulates, elephants and snakes which result in grave injuries and deaths on both sides, the casualties of human-ant conflict are exclusively ants. One of the main reasons is that they do not feature high in the list of species which need immediate conservation action. Currently, 140 species of ants find their names in the IUCN Red List.

The household ants which I mentioned in the beginning obviously do not fall under this category. Nevertheless, they are accidentally trampled upon and crushed or are continuously ostracised using various insecticides which are dangerous even to us.

All of us have ants in our homes. They raid our kitchen, dining and even the bathroom. During summertime especially, there are so many of them that we have to place lunch bowls one on top of the other and keep this setup in a utensil filled with water to discourage ants from getting at the food. Even then, they manage to construct living bridges and cross the river and reach the edible island! No doubt that they are frequently used as an example by motivational speakers who talk about never giving up.

Let us make a conscious effort during this pandemic, to establish peace with these tiny, yet intriguing creatures that reflect us and teach things in ways more than one.

-Yazhini Sathiamoorthy (Freelancer)

Exploring the Secrets of Nature – Reader’s Digest

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