One of the surprises of travelling is that it is often the big attractions and wildlife that draw us to a place, but the tiniest, quietest things that end up being most fascinating. So many times I’ve looked forward to admiring a towering mountain, or encountering an enormous African elephant, but it’s the diminutive insects crawling round my feet that end up intriguing me.
So here’s possibly this week’s bizarrest list: My Top Seven Ants. Latin names added just to give me a bit of cred.
1. Bullet Ants (Paraponera clavata).
They’re not shaped like bullets. They don’t move as fast as bullets. But their sting is, apparently, just like being shot. The pain is said to be intolerable, all-consuming, and to last for a full 24 hours – hence its other nickname, the “24-hour ant”. I almost encountered these evil creatures under a tree in Bocas del Toro, Panama, when my guide stuck a twig into the hole to make the ants run out so I could see them. I say almost, because, naturally, I ran.
Unfortunately, the boys of the Satere-Mawe tribe in Brazil do not have the option of sprinting. They are stung repeatedly as part of a ghastly initiation ritual before, after which they remain shaking and partially paralysed for days. This process must be repeated before they are fully fledged warriors. TWENTY TIMES.
2. Safari Ants (Dorylus).
These ants make me giggle, but I’m pretty sure that’s because I’ve never been attacked by one. I saw someone who was, though, in Uganda. These ants sneak up your trouser leg, but they don’t hang around and bite your thick-skinned calves. Oh no. They are fussy, gourmet ants, who are only interested in the softest, most succulent bit of skin to munch on. So they climb higher and higher in search of the perfect meal. And once they’ve found it, they’ll just hang out and feast away in a crevasse. OUCH! So why on earth do I find safari ants so funny? Because the only sensible way to deal with them is to shriek in horror, hop around slapping your thighs, then sprint behind the nearest bush to drop your pants and pull the critter off. Hilarious – as long as it’s happening to someone else.
3. Leaf-cutter Ants. If you don’t understand how I became so interested in ants, start Googling these critters. They are absolutely fascinating. I’ve watched thousands of them carrying bright green chunks of leaf across my path in the Bolivian Amazon, and lived alongside them in a little village in Ecuador’s Choco rainforest. Their path never deviated the whole month I was there. Though each colony will contain just one species; in a weird Brave New World kind of scenario, they come in four different sizes, and each size has a different job to do.
4. Lemon Ants (myrmelachista schumanni). This is, to date, the only insect I have ever (knowingly) eaten. Lemon ants are very, very tiny, and they live inside a shrub in the Amazon. My guide tracked down one of these shrubs down in Ecuador’s Cuyabeno Reserve, split a branch, and revealed hundreds of ants scuttling around inside. He then instructed me to lick them off, as they taste of lemon. It turned out he was right. The favour was pleasant enough, but the wriggly, tingly, sherbet-like sensation on my tongue was a little weird. And feeling them crawling round in my throat after I’d attempted to swallow a batch was definitely not the ideal aftertaste. But still, I ate ants.
The strangest thing about this particular ant species, however, is not the citrus taste – it’s the way they kill all other plants that attempt to grow around their favourite shrub, giving it space and sunlight to thrive, resulting in the ants having a permanent home. This strangely barren space is known by locals as the “Devil’s Garden”.
5. Army Ants (Eciton burchellii)
I encountered a friend in a Panamanian bar one lunchtime. He couldn’t go home until the evening, he said, “because the army ants are on their way.” What? Calmly, he explained. Army ants move as one enormous battalion, and they eat anything in their path. That day, they were heading to his house in the jungle. The thing is, they move in colonies of up to 2,000,000 individuals. Yes, that’s right, TWO MILLION ANTS. That’s a lot of “anything” that can get eaten. My friend’s nonchalance towards this fact was caused by the fact that they act as nature’s cleaners. Houses get dirty fast in the tropics. All number of beasts live in the nooks and crannies between the wooden planks of the floor and walls. The army ants besiege the house, and eat every dead cockroach, every breadcrumb, every writhing worm, and leave the place spotless. To speed up proceedings, larger ants will stretch themselves across miniature, ant-sized potholes, so that smaller ants can use them as a bridge.You stick everything you want to salvage in the fridge, pack your bag and head out for the day, and when you come back, the place has been thoroughly spring cleaned.
The other reason my friend seemed unbothered by them is that he was not in his house. This is important. The ants don’t stop at cockroaches and bags of rice. They don’t stop at snoozing dogs. They will consume anything edible that does not move out of their way – up to the size of horse, apparently. Couch potatoes – beware.
6. Fire Ants. I was unlucky enough to get attacked by these in the rainforests of Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro. This particular tract of jungle connected the town to the beach, and was best traversed barefoot, to avoid trashing or simply losing sandals in the sticky mud. The fire ants would swarm across the paths, clamp their jaws around anything that got in their way and then sting – a sensation that felt like being scorched, hence the name. The worst was when a particularly persistent individual got stuck between the toes… feel the burn!
7. Zombie Ants. Disclaimer: I have never actually come across these. Disclaimer II: They are also not really a species of ant. Those minor points aside, I have included them here because they are a thousand times freakier and more grotesque than any of those above, plus it is the perfect opportunity to link to a David Attenborough video. A parasitic fungus penetrates the ants’ brains and takes over their bodies, causing them to behave in strange ways: they are literally the living dead. Disclaimer III: please, please don’t watch this right before bedtime. Or dinnertime. Or with children.