Dear All – having been weighing and counting ants on the Whistling Thorns for some research work related to my PhD. There are a few alates around – these are the winged reproductive forms of ants… Each colony produces many hundreds, even thousands of alates that take off into the sky as part of a synchronised mating flight. Female alates become future queens, they are larger than the males. Male alates only live for the day of the mating flight – they have one chance to mate. They can never return to their colony once they depart. All of them will die within a day of departing on the mating flight…
Here is an illustration of the alates of the three common ant species on the Whistling Thorn trees in East Africa:
Alates - winged queens and males of the Whistling Thorn ants (the black bar is for scale - it represents 1 cm or 1o mm)
Most of the them don’t make it and end up as food for birds, other ants and spiders.
I found this Jumping Spider eating a freshly captured young foundress queen…
Jumping Spider with Acacia-ant alate (winged queen)
The spider lives among the ants and dodges them by constantly keeping on the move, occasionally nabbing one of the hapless ants for a snack! Jumping Spiders are ambush predators that use their athletic skills and fantastic vision to capture prey. They have more than two pairs of eyes (in fact 4 pairs in total, with two pairs facing forward that are very well developed…)
How many eyes can you see on the spider?
I recently went on a walk in a forest in Western Kenya and stumbled into these remarkable beasts. Ants may be tiny, but they swarm in large armies and are also armed with some impressive weapons in the form of ‘jaws’ (mandibles) that can inflict a lot of damage quickly…
Among the most impressive jaws among the Kenyan ants are no doubt those belonging to the dreaded Siafu, or Safari Ants, who swarm through forests and similar habitats feasting on anything and everything they can subdue…
Safari ants swarming along a forest path
Here are some close-ups of the ‘soldier’ ants jaws who guard the highways that the ants run along through the forest..
Siafu standing guard!
Remember all these ‘soldiers’, and in fact all of the ants in the swarm are all females, all sisters and all sterile! And they are also all blind – none of the worker Siafu have eyes!
Jaws built like miniature daggers!
Foraging nearby were some other interesting ants with impressive jaws too. These were Trapjaw ants who hunt alone, unlike the Siafu. They walk around with their jaws held wide open, and then snap them shut when they meet a suitable prey item. The shutting of their jaws is one of the fastest movements in nature – close to the speed of sound!
Trapjaw ant on the hunt
Trapjaw ant resting
More from the world of bugs soon!
Dear All – Thanks for the kind comments and sparing a moment to consider the world of insects.
Here is a another snippet from the rainforest. Climbed a hill on Christmas day so that I could telephone friends and family and wish them well. On the way down I noticed large black ants clambering about the stems of some grasses. As I brushed past them, they did not scurry away as most ants do.
I peered closer to one of them to see what they were up to. I flicked the grass with my fingers, and still the ant stood her ground. Then I noticed that she was standing guard over a small ‘herd’ of scale insects.
In a set-up similar to humans herding cattle and other livestock, many different kinds of ants lovingly tend scale insects, aphids and other plant-feeding bugs. In return the ants get to milk their charges for honeydew. The bugs get a veritable army of protectors, and in some cases even get carried around by their ant nannies!
Ant in the evening…
A few weeks ago while visiting a forest at the coast I took a stroll in the evening. One of the most common kinds of ants along the East African coast are members of the genus Polyrachis. These are fairly large (as ants go!), over 1 cm long, and can commonly be found clambering around houses and trees.
This particular ant was wandering up a twig of a tangled shrub at the edge of the path. It walked up and down the stem several times before climbing onto a leaf. These ants are famous for tending other insects – primarily bugs of various kinds that suck plant juices and reward the ants with treats of honeydew. I found this bug lying against the stem where the ant was walking up and down.
After a few minutes, the ant clambered on to a leaf in the sunshine. There it sat sunning itself for a few minutes before wandering off.
I wonder what it was thinking of – perhaps ‘How do I get home to my colony?’, Or was it, just like I was, enjoying the evening sunshine streaming through the forest… It seems that even ants need a moment to themselves sometimes.
Sorry for not posting more often – have been really busy chasing after bugs now that the rains have started and they are popping out all over the place!
Many, many thanks to everyone for their kind comments on the blog post ‘Ants in the dust’. I will try and post a link to the BBC piece on it when I can figure out the technical side of it today or tomorrow.
A couple of days ago in a tiny forest fragment near Nairobi I spotted these little beauties whirling about some buds. From a distance they looked like tiny little orange flames dancing in the dappled light. On taking a closer look I saw that they were tiny orange and brown lycaenid butterflies.
Known as ‘Buffs’, these tiny jewels are part of a large and diverse group of butterflies in the family Lycaenidae. This species is Baliochila fragilis – an apt name for their delicate build. The caterpillars of these butterflies feed on lichens, often high up in the forest trees, so it was interesting to find them hovering about near the ground.
Looking closely at the butterflies perching on the buds of the Chlorophytum, I noticed that there were a lot of ants running up and down the buds too. And then I noticed that the butterflies had their tiny proboscis unfurled and were feeding from in between the young buds. These buds secrete extra-floral nectar which is intended to attract ants that then patrol the buds and protect them from would-be nibblers of the insect-kind. However, as the butterflies posed no threat the flowers, the ants seemed to tolerate them.
In fact, the butterflies were so relaxed that quite a few of the males were courting the females. The pair in the video clip below show the typical interaction. The male sidles up to the female. She rejects him with a flick of her wings and moves on trying to keep feeding. He follows her and flicks his own wings at her trying to win her over… She rejects him and keeps on moving… the cycle is repeated over and over again. I guess eventually some of the most perseverant males win one of the females over!
[kml_flashembed movie=”http://www.youtube.com/v/Az_bNs8cewg” width=”425″ height=”350″ wmode=”transparent” /]
More from the wonderful world of bugs soon!