FROM uniform to civilian clothes is a change transcending mere alteration of stuffs and buttons. It is scarcely less sweeping than the shift from civilian clothes to bathing-suit, which so often compels us to concentrate on remembered mental attributes, to avoid demanding a renewed introduction to estranged personality. In the home life of the average soldier, the relaxation from sustained tension and conscious routine results in a gentleness and quietness of mood for which warrior nations are especially remembered.
Army ants have no insignia to lay aside, and their swords are too firmly hafted in their own beings to be hung up as post-bellum mural decorations, or — as is done only in poster-land — metamorphosed into pruning-hooks and ploughshares.
I sat at my laboratory table at Kartabo, our new and permanent Research Station, and looked down river to the pink roof of Kalacoon, and my mind went back to the shambles of Pit Number Five. I was wondering whether I should ever see the army ants in any guise other than that of scouting, battling searchers for living prey, when a voice of the jungle seemed to hear my unexpressed wish. The sharp, high notes of white-fronted antbirds — those white-crested watchers of the ants — came to my ears, and I left my table and followed up the sound. Physically I merely walked around the bungalow and approached the edge of the jungle at a point where we had erected a small outhouse a day or two before. But this two hundred feet might just as well have been a single step through quicksilver, hand in hand with Alice, for it took me from a world of hyoids and syrinxes, of vials and lenses and clean-smelling xylol, to the home of the army ants.
The antbirds were chirping and hopping about on the very edge of the jungle, but I did not have to go that far. As I passed the doorless entrance of the outhouse I looked up, and there was an immense mass of some strange material suspended in the upper corner. It looked like stringy, chocolate-colored tow, studded with hundreds of tiny ivory buttons. I came closer and looked carefully at this mushroom growth which had appeared in a single night, and it was then that my eyes began to perceive, and my mind to record, things that my reason besought me to reject. Such phenomena were all right in a dream, or one might imagine them and tell them to children on one’s knee, with wind in the eaves — wild tales to be laughed at and forgotten. But this was daylight and I was a scientist; my eyes were in excellent order, and my mind rested after a dreamless sleep; so I had to record what I saw in that little outhouse.
This chocolate-colored mass with its myriad ivory dots was the home, the nest, the hearth, the nursery, the bridal suite, the kitchen, the bed and board of the army ants. It was the focus of all the lines and files which ravaged the jungle for food, of the battalions which attacked every living creature in their path, of the unnumbered rank and file which made them known to every Indian, to every inhabitant of these vast jungles.
Louis Quatorzc once said, ‘L'État, c'est moi!’ but this figure of speech becomes an empty, meaningless phrase beside what an army ant could boast — ‘ La maison, c'est moi! ’ Every rafter, beam, stringer, window-frame and door-frame, hall-way, room, ceiling, wall and floor, foundation, superstructure and roof, all were ants — living, motionless ants, distorted by stress, crowded into the dense walls, spread out to widest stretch across tie-spaces. I had thought it marvelous when I saw them arrange themselves as bridges, walks, hand-rails, buttresses, and signboards along the columns; but this new absorption of environment, this usurpation of wood and stone, this insinuation of themselves into the province of the inorganic world, was almost too astounding to credit.
All along the upper rim the sustaining structure was more distinctly visible than elsewhere. Here was a maze of taut brown threads stretching in places across a span of six inches, with here and there a tiny knot. These were actually tie-strings of living ants, their legs stretched almost to the breakingpoint, their bodies the inconspicuous knots or nodes. Even at rest and at home, the army ants are always prepared, for every quiescent individual in the swarm was standing as erect as possible, with jaws widespread and ready, whether the great curved mahogany scimitars of the soldiers, or the little black daggers of the smaller workers. And with no eyelids to close, and eyes which were themselves a mockery, the nerve shriveling and never reaching the brain, what could sleep mean to them? Wrapped ever in an impenetrable cloak of darkness and silence, life was yet one great activity, directed, ordered, commanded by scent and odor alone. Hour after hour, as I sat close to the nest, I was aware of this odor, sometimes subtle, again wafted in strong successive waves. It was musty, like something sweet which had begun to mould; not unpleasant, but very difficult to describe; and in vain I strove to realize the importance of this faint essence — taking the place of sound, of language, of color, of motion, of form.
I recovered quickly from my first rapt realization, for a dozen ants had lost no time in ascending my shoes, and, as if at a preconcerted signal, all simultaneously sank their jaws into my person. Thus strongly recalled to the realities of life, I realized the opportunity that was offered and planned for my observation. No living thing could long remain motionless within the sphere of influence of these six-legged Boches, and yet I intended to spend days in close proximity. There was no place to hang a hammock, no overhanging tree from which I might suspend myself spider-wise. So I sent Sam for an ordinary chair, four tin cans, and a bottle of disinfectant. I filled the tins with the tarry fluid, and in four carefully timed rushes I placed the tins in a chair-leg square. The fifth time I put the chair in place beneath the nest, but I had misjudged my distances and had to retreat with only two tins in place. Another effort, with Spartanlike disregard of the fiery bites, and my haven was ready. I hung a bag of vials, notebook, and lens on the chairback, and with a final rush climbed on the seat, and curled up as comfortably as possible.
All around the tins, swarming to the very edge of the liquid, were the angry hosts. Close to my face were the lines ascending and descending, while just above me were hundreds of thousands, a bushel-basket of army ants, with only the strength of their thread-like legs as suspension cables. It took some time to get used to my environment, and from first to last I was never wholly relaxed, or quite unconscious of what would happen if a chair-leg broke, or a bamboo fell across the outhouse.
I Swiveled round on the chair-seat and counted eight lines of army ants on the ground, converging to the post at my elbow. Each was four or five ranks wide, and the eight lines occasionally divided or coalesced, like a nexus of capillaries. There was a wide expanse of sand and clay, and no apparent reason why the various lines of foragers should not approach the nest in a single large column. The dividing and redividing showed well how completely free were the columns from any individual dominance. There was no control by specific individuals or soldiers, but, the general route once established, the governing factor was the odor of contact.
The law to pass where others have passed is immutable, but freedom of action or individual desire dies with the malleable, plastic ends of the foraging columns. Again and again came to mind the comparison of the entire colony or army with a single organism; and now the home, the nesting swarm, the focus of central control, seemed like the body of this strange amorphous organism — housing the spirit of the army. One thinks of a column of foragers as a tendril with only the tip sensitive and growing and moving, while the corpuscle-like individual ants are driven in the current of blind instinct to and fro, on their chemical errands. And then this whole theory, this most vivid simile, is quite upset by the sights that I watch in the suburbs of this ant home!
The columns were most excellent barometers, and their reaction to passing showers was invariable. The clay surface held water, and after each downfall the pools would be higher, and the contour of the little region altered. At the first few drops, all the ants would hasten, the throbbing corpuscles speeding up. Then, as the rain came down heavier, the column melted away, those near each end hurrying to shelter and those in the centre crawling beneath fallen leaves and bits of clod and sticks. A moment before, hundreds of ants were trudging around a tiny pool, the water lined with ant handrails, and in shallow places, veritable formicine pontoons, — large ants which stood up to their bodies in water, with the booty-laden host passing over them. Now, all had vanished, leaving only a bare expanse of splashing drops and wet clay. The sun broke through and the residue rain tinkled from the bamboos.
As gradually as the growth of the rainbow above the jungle, the lines reformed themselves. Scouts crept from the jungle-edge at one side, and from the post at my end, and felt their way, fan-wise, over the rain-scoured surface; for the odor, which was both sight and sound to these ants, had been washed away — a more serious handicap than mere change in contour. Swiftly the wandering individuals found their bearings again. There was deep water where dry land had been, but, as if by long-planned study of the work of sappers and engineers, new pontoon bridges were thrown across, washouts filled in, new cliffs explored, and easy grades established ; and by the time the bamboos ceased their own private after-shower, the columns were again running smoothly, battalions of eager light infantry hastening out to battle, and equal hosts of loot-laden warriors hurrying toward the home nest. Four minutes was the average time taken to reform a column across the ten feet of open clay, with all the road-making and engineering feats which I have mentioned, on the part of ants who had never been over this new route before.
Leaning forward within a few inches of the post, I lost all sense of proportion, forgot my awkward human size, and with a new perspective became an equal of the ants, looking on, watching every passer-by with interest, straining with the bearers of the heavy loads, and breathing more easily when the last obstacle was overcome and home attained. For a period I plucked out every bit of good-sized booty and found that almost all were portions of scorpions from far-distant dead logs in the jungle, creatures whose strength and poisonous stings availed nothing against the attacks of these fierce ants. The loads were adjusted equably, the larger pieces carried by the big, white-headed workers, while the smaller ants transported small eggs and larva;. Often, when a great mandiblcd soldier had hold of some insect, he would have five or six tiny workers surrounding him, each grasping any projecting part of the loot, as if they did not trust him in this menial capacity — as an anxious mother would watch with doubtful confidence a big policeman wheeling her baby across a crowded street. These workers were often diminutive Marcelines, hindering rather than aiding in the progress. But in every phase of activity of these ants there was not an ounce of intentionally lost power, or a moment of time willfully gone to waste. What a commentary on Bolshevism !
Now that I had the opportunity of quietly watching the long, hurrying columns, I came hour by hour to feel a greater intimacy, a deeper enthusiasm for their vigor of existence, their unfailing life at the highest point of possibility of achievement. In every direction my former desultory observations were discounted by still greater accomplishments. Elsewhere1 I have recorded the average speed as two and a half feet in ten seconds, estimating this as a mile in three and a half hours. An observant colonel in the American army has laid bare my congenitally hopeless mathematical inaccuracy, and corrected this to five hours and fiftytwo seconds. Now, however, I established a wholly new record for the straight-away dash for home of the army ants. With the handicap of gravity pulling them down, the ants, both laden and unburdened, averaged ten feet in twenty seconds, as they raced up the post. I have now called in an artist and an astronomer to verify my results, these two being the only living beings within hailing distance as I write, except a howling red baby monkey curled up in my lap, and a toucan, sloth, and green boa beyond my laboratory table. Our results are identical and I can safely announce that the amateur record for speed of army ants is equivalent to a mile in t wo hours and fifty-six seconds; and this when handicapped by gravity and burdens of food, but with the incentive of approaching the end of their long journey.
As once before, I accidentally disabled a big worker that I was robbing of his load, and his entire abdomen rolled down a slope and disappeared. Hours later in the afternoon, I was summoned to view the same soldier, unconcernedly making his way along an outward-bound column, guarding it as carefully as if he had not lost the major part of his anatomy. His mandibles were ready, and t he only difference that I could see was that he could make better speed than others of his caste. That night he joined the general assemblage of cripples quietly awaiting death, halfway up to the nest.
I know of no highway in the world which surpasses that of a big column of army ants in exciting happenings, although I usually had the feeling which inspired Kim as he watched the Great White Road, of understanding so little of all that was going on. Early in the morning there were only outgoing hosts; but soon eddies were seen in the swift current, vortexes made by a single ant here and there forcing its way against the stream. Unlike penguins and human beings, army ants have no rule of the road as to right and left, and there is no lessening of pace or turning aside for a heavily laden drogher. Their blindness caused them to bump squarely into every individual, often sending load and carrier tumbling to the bottom of a vertical path. Another constant loss of energy was a large cockroach leg or scorpion segment carried by several ants. Their insistence on trying to carry everything beneath their bodies caused all sorts of comical mishaps. When such a large piece of bootyappeared, it was too much of a temptation, and a dozen outgoing ants would rush up and seize hold for a moment, the consequent pulling in all directions reducing progress at once to zero.
Until late afternoon few ants returned without carrying their bit. The exceptions were the cripples, which were numerous and very pitiful. From such fierce strenuousness, such virile activity, as unending as elemental processes, it seemed a very terrible drop to disability, to the utilizing of every atom of remaining strength to return to the temporary home nest — that instinct which drives so many creatures to the same homing, at the approach of death.
Even in their helplessness they were wonderful. To see a big black-headed worker struggling up a post with five short stumps and only one good hind leg was a lesson in achieving t he impossible. I have never seen even a suspicion of aid given to any cripple, no matter how slight or how complete the disability; but frequently an inexplicable thing occurred, which I have often noticed but can never explain. One army ant would carry another, perhaps of its own size and caste, just as if it were a bit of dead provender; and I always wondered if cannibalism was to be added to their habits. I would capture both, and the minute they were in the vial, the dead ant would come to life, and with equal vigor and fury both would rush about their prison, seeking to escape, becoming indistinguishable in the twinkling of an eye.
Very rarely an ant stopped and attempted to clean another which had become partly disabled through an accumulation of gummy sap or other encumbering substance. But when a leg or other organ was broken or missing, the odor of the ant-blood seemed to arouse only suspicion and to banish sympathy, and after a few casual wavings of antennæ, all passed by on the other side. Not only this, but the unfortunates were actually in danger of attack within the very lines of traffic of the legionaries. Several times I noticed small rove-beetles accompanying the ants, who paid little attention to them. Whenever an ant became suspicious, and approached with a raisedeyebrow gesture of antennæ, the beet les t urned their backs quickly and raised threatening tails. But I did not suspect the vampire or thug-like character of these guests — tolerated where any other insect would have been torn to pieces at once. A large crippled worker, hobbling along, had slipped a little away from the main line, when I was astonished to see two rove-beetles rush at him and bite him viciously, a third coming up at once and joining in. The poor worker had no possible chance against this combination, and he went down after a short, futile struggle. Two small army ants now happened to pass, and after a preliminary whiffing with waving antennae rushed joyously into the mêlée. The beetles had a cowardly weapon, and raising their tails, ejected a drop or two of liquid, utterly confusing the ants which turned and hastened back to the column. For the next few minutes, until the scent wore off, they aroused suspicion wherever they went. Meanwhile the hyena-like rove-beetles, having hedged themselves within a barricade of their malodor, proceeded to feast, quarreling with one another as such cowards are wont to do.
Thus I thought, having identified myself with the army ants. From a broader, less biased point of view, I realized that credit should be given to the rovebeetles for having established themselves in a zone of such constant danger, and for being able to live and thrive in it.
The columns converged at the foot of the post, and up its surface ran the main artery of the nest. Halfway up, a flat, board projected, and here the column divided for the last time, half going on directly into the nest, and the other half turning aside, skirting the board, ascending a bit of perpendicular canvas, and entering the nest from the rear. The entrance was well guarded by a veritable moat and drawbridge of living ants. A foot away, a flat mat of ants, mandibles outward, was spread, over which every passing individual stepped. Six inches farther, and the sides of the mat thickened, and in ihe last three inches these sides met overhead, forming a short tunnel at the end of which the nest began.
And here I noticed an interesting thing. Into this organic moat or tunnel, this living mouth of an inferno, passed all the booty-laden foragers, or those who for some reason had returned empty-mouthecl. But the outgoing host seeped gradually from the outermost nest-layer — a gradual but fundamental circulation, like that of ocean currents. Scorpions, eggs, caterpillars, glass-like wasp pupæ, roaches, spiders, crickets, all were drawn into the nest by a maelstrom of hunger, funneling into the narrow tunnel; while from over all the surface of the swarm there crept forth layer after layer of invigorated, implacable seekers after food.
The mass of ants composing the nest appeared so loosely connected that it seemed as if a touch would tear a hole, a light wind rend the supports. It was suspended in the upper corner of the doorway, rounded on the free sides, and measured roughly two feet in diameter— an unnumbered host, of ants. Those on the surface were in very slow but constant motion, with legs shifting and antennae waving continually. This quivering on the surface of the swarm gave it the appearance of the fur of some terrible animal — fur blowing in the wind from some unknown, deadly desert. Yet. so cohesive was the entire mass that I sat close beneath it for the best part of two days and not more than a dozen ants fell upon me. There was, however, a constant rain of eggcases and pupa-skins and the remains of scorpions and grasshoppers, the residue of the booty which was being poured in. These wrappings and inedible casing were all brought to the surface and dropped. This was reasonable, but what I could not comprehend was a constant falling of small living larvee. How anything except army ants could emerge alive from such a sinister swarm was inconceivable. It took some resolution to stand up under the nest, with my face only a foot away from this slowly seething mass of widespread jaws. But I had to discover where the falling larvae came from, and after a time I found that they were immature army ants. Here and there a small worker would appear, carrying in its mandibles a young larva; and while most made their way through the maze of mural legs and bodies, and ultimately disappeared again, once in a while the burden was dropped and fell to the floor of the outhouse. I can account for this only by presuming that a certain percentage of the nurses were very young and inexperienced workers and dropped their burdens inadvertently. There was certainly no intentional casting out of these offspring, as was so obviously the case wit h the debris from the food of the colony. The eleven or twelve ants which fell upon me during my watch were all small workers, no larger ones losing their grip.
While recording some of these facts, I dropped my pencil, and it was fully ten minutes before the black mass of enraged insects cleared away, and I could pick it up. Leaning far over to secure it, I was surprised by the cleanliness of the floor around my chair. My clothes and notepaper had been covered with loose wings, dry skeletons of insects, and the other debris, while hundreds of other fragments had sifted down past me. Yet now that I looked seeingly, the whole area was perfectly clean. I had to assume a perfect jackknife pose to get my face near enough to the floor; but, achieving it, I found about five hundred ants serving as a street-cleaning squad. They roamed aimlessly about over the whole floor, ready at; once to attack anything of mine or any part of my anatomy which might come close enough, but otherwise stimulated to activity only when they came across a bit of rubbish from the nest high overhead. This was at once seized and carried off to one of two neat piles in far corners. Before night these kitchen middens were an inch or two deep and nearly a foot, in length, composed literally of thousands of skins, wings, and insect armor. There was not a scrap of dirt of any kind which had not been gathered into one of the two piles. The nest was nine feet above the floor, a distance (magnifying ant height to our own) of nearly a mile, and yet the care lavished on the cleanliness of the earth so far below was as thorough and well done as the actual provisioning of the colony.
As I watched the columns and the swarm-nest hour after hour, several things impressed me. The absolute silence in which the ants worked: such ceaseless activity without sound one associates only with a cinema film; all around me was tremendous energy, marvelous feats of achievement, superhuman instincts, the ceaseless movement of tens of thousands of legionaries; yet no tramp of feet, no shouts, no curses, no welcomes, no chanties. It was uncanny to think of a race of creatures such as these, dreaded by every living being, wholly dominant in their continent-wide sphere of action, yet born, living out their lives, and dying, dumb and blind, with no possibility of comment on life and its fulness, of censure or of applause.
The sweeping squad on the floor was interesting because of its limited field of work at such a distance from the nest; but close to my chair were a number of other specialized zones of activity, any one of which would have afforded a fertile field for concentrated study. Beneath the swarm on the white canvas I noticed two large spots of dirt and moisture, where very small flies were collected. An examinat ion showed that this was a second, nearer dumpingground for all the garbage and refuseof the swarm which could not be thrown down on the kitchen middens far below. And here were tiny flies and ot her insects acting as scavengers, just as the hosts of vultures gather about the slaughter-house of Georgetown.
The most interest ing of all the phases of life of the ants’ home town were those on the horizontal board which projected from the beam, and stretched for several feet to one side of the swarm. This platform was almost on a level with my eyes, and by leaning slightly forward on the chair, I was as close as I dared go. Here many ants came from the incoming columns, and others were constantly arriving from the nest itself. It was here that I realized my good fortune and the achievement of my desires, when I first saw an army ant at rest. One of the first arrivals after I had squatted to my post was a big soldier with a heavy load of roach meat. Instead of keeping on straight up the post, he turned abruptly and dropped his load. It was instantly picked up by two smaller workers and carried on and upward toward the nest. Two other big fellows arrived in quick succession, one with a load which he relinquished to a drogher-in-waiting. Then the three weary warriors stretched their legs one after another, and commenced to clean their antennae. This lasted only for a moment, for three or four tiny ants rushed at each of the larger ones and began as thorough a cleaning as masseurs or Turkish-bath attendants. The three arrivals were at once hustled away to a distant part of the board and there cleaned from end to end. I found that the focal length of my 8-diameter lens was just out of reach of the ants, so I focused careful]}" on one of the soldiers and watched the entire process. The small ants scrubbed and scraped him with their jaws, licking him and removing every particle of dirt. One even crawled under him and worked away at his upper legjoints, for all the world as a mechanic will creep under a car. Finally, I was delighted to see him do what no car ever does, turn completely over and lie quietly on his back wit h his legs in air, while his diminutive helpers overran him, and gradually got him into shape for future battles and foraging expeditions.
On this resting-stage, within welldefined limits, were dozens of groups of two cleaning one another, and less numerous parties of the tiny professionals working their hearts out on battle-worn soldiers. It became more and more apparent that in the creed of the army ants cleanliness comes next to military effectiveness.
Here and there I saw independent individuals cleaning themselves and going through the most un-ant-like movements. They scraped their jaws along the board, pushing forward like a dog trying to get rid of his muzzle; then they turned on one side and passed the opposite legs again and again through the mandibles; while the last performance was to turn over on their backs and roll from side to side, exactly as a horse or donkey loves to do.
One ant, I remember, seemed to have something seriously wrong. It sat up on its bent-under abdomen in a most comical fashion, and was the object of solicitude of every passing ant. Sometimes there were thirty in a dense group, pushing and jostling; and, like most of our city crowds, many seemed to stop only long enough to have a moment’s morbid sight, or to ask some silly question as to the trouble, then to hurry on. Others remained, and licked and twiddled him with their antennse for a long time. He was in this position for at least twenty minutes. My curiosity was so aroused that I gathered him up in a vial, whereat he became wildly excited and promptly regained full use of his legs and faculties. Later, when I examined him under the lens, I could find nothing whatever wrong.
Off at one side of the general cleaning and reconstruction areas was a pitiful assemblage of cripples which had had enough energy to crawl back, but. which did not attempt, or were not allowed, to enter the nest proper. Some had one or two legs gone, others had lost an antenna or had an injured body. They seemed not to know what to do — wandering around, now and then giving one another a half-hearted lick. In the midst was one which had died, and two others, each badly injured, were trying to tug the body along to the edge of the board. This they succeeded in doing after a long series of efforts, and down and down fell the dead ant. It was promptly picked up by several kitchen-middenites and unceremoniously thrown on the pile of nest-debris. A load of booty had been dumped among the cripples, and as each wandered close to it, he seemed to regain strength for a moment, picked up the load, and then dropped it. The sight of that which symbolized almost all their life-activity aroused them to a momentary forgetfulness of their disabilities. There was no longer any place for them in the home or in the columns of the legionaries. They had been court-martialed under the most implacable, the most impartial law in the world — the survival of the fit, the elimination of the unfit.
The time came when we had to get at our stored supplies, over which the army ants were such an effective guard. I experimented on a running column with a spray of ammonia and found that it created merely temporary inconvenience, the ants running back and forming a new trail. Formaline was more effective, so I sprayed the nest-swarm with a fifty-per-cent solution, strong enough, one would think, to harden the very boards. It certainly created a terrible commotion, and strings of the ants two feet long hung dangling from the nest. The heart of the colony came into view, with thousands of eggs and larvæ, looking like heaps of white rice-grains. Every ant seized one or the other, and sought escape by the nearest way, while the soldiers still defied the world. The gradual disintegration revealed an interior meshed like a wasp’s nest, chambered and honeycombed with living tubes and walls. Little by little the taut guy-ropes, lathes, braces, joists, all sagged and melted together, each cell-wall becoming dynamic, now expanding, now contracting, the ceilings vibrant with waving legs, the floors a seething mass of jaws and antennte. By the time it was dark, the swarm was dropping in sections to the floor.
On the following morning new surprises awaited me. The great mass of the ants had moved in the night, vanishing with every egg and immature larva; but there was left in the corner of the flat board a swarm of about one quarter of the entire number, enshrouding a host of older larvae. The cleaning zones, the cripples’ gatheringroom, all had given way to new activities, on the flat board, down near the kitchen middens, and in every horizontal crack.
The cause of all this strange excitement, this braving of the terrible dangers of fumes which had threatened to destroy the entire colony the night before, suddenly was made plain as I watched. A critical lime was at. hand in the lives of the all-precious larvae, when they could not. be moved — the period of spinning, of beginning the transformation from larvae to pupae. This evidently was an operation which had to take place outside 1 he nest, and demanded some sort of light covering. On the flat board were several thousand ants and a dozen or more groups of full-grown larvæ. Workers of all sizes were searching everywhere for some covering for the tender immature creatures. They had chewed up all available loose splinters of wood, and near the rotten, termite-eaten ends, the sound of dozens of jaws gnawing all at once was plainly audible. This unaccustomed, unmilitary labor produced a quantity of fine sawdust which was sprinkled over the larvre. I had made a partition of a bit of a British officer’s tent which I had used in India and China, made of several layers of colored canvas and cloth. The ants found a loose end of this, teased it out, and unraveled it, so that all the larvæ near by were blanketed with a gay, parti-colored covering of fuzz.
All this strange work was hurried and carried on under great excitement. The scores of big soldiers on guard appeared rather ill at ease, as if they had wandered by mistake into the wrong department. They sauntered about, bumped into larvæ, turned, and fled. A constant stream of workers from the nest brought hundreds more larvae, and no sooner had they been planted and debris of sorts sifted over them, than they began spinning. A few had already swathed themselves in cocoons — exceedingly thin coverings of pinkish silk. As this took place out of the nest, in the jungle they must be covered with wood and leaves. The vital necessity for this was not apparent, for none of this debris was incorporated into the silk of the cocoons, which were clean and homogeneous. Yet the hundreds of ants gnawed and tore and labored to gather this little dust, as if their very lives depended upon it.
With my hand-lens focused just beyond mandible reach of the biggest soldier, I leaned forward from my insulated chair, hovering like a great astral eye looking down at this marvelously important business of little lives. Here were thousands of army ants, not killing, not carrying booty, nor even suspended quiescent as organic molecules in the structure of the home, yet in feverish activity equaled only by battle, making ready for the great change of their foster offspring. I watched the very first thread of silk drawn between the larva and the outside world, and in an incredibly short time the cocoon was outlined in a tissuethin, transparent aura within which the tenant could be seen skillfully weaving its own shroud.
When first brought from the nest, the larvæ lay quite straight and still; but almost at once they bent far over in the spinning position. Then some officious worker would come along, and the unfortunate larva would be snatched up, carried off, and jammed down in some neighboring empty space, like a bolt of cloth rearranged upon a shelf. Then another ant would approach, antennæ the larva, disapprove, and again shift its position. It was a real survival of the lucky, as to who should avoid being exhausted by kindness and over-solicitude. I uttered many a chuckle at the half-ensilked unfortunates being toted about like mummies, and occasionally giving a sturdy, impatient kick which upset their tormentors and for a moment created a little swirl of mild excitement.
There was no order of packing. The larva? were fitted together anyway, and meagrely covered with dust of wood and shreds of cloth. One big tissue of wood nearly an inch square was too great a temptation to be let alone, and during the course of my observation it covered in turn almost every group of larvae in sight, ending by being accidentally shunted over the edge and killing a worker near the kitchen middens. There was only a single layer of larvae; in no case were they piled up, and when the platform became crowded, a new column was formed and hundreds taken outside. To the casual eye there was no difference between t hese legionaries and a column bringing in booty of insects, eggs, and pupæ; yet here all was solicitude, never a bite too severe, or a blunder of undue force.
The sights I saw in this second day’s accessible nest-swarm would warrant a season’s meditation and study, but one thing impressed me above all others. Sometimes, when I carefully pried open one section and looked deep within, I could see large chambers with the larvae in piles, besides being held in the mandibles of the components of the walls and ceilings. Now and then a curious little ghost-like form would flit across the chamber, coming to rest gnome-like on larva or ant. Again and again I saw these little springtails skip through the very scimitar mandibles of a soldier, while the workers paid no attention to them. I wondered if they were not. quite odorless, intangible; to the ants, invisible guests which lived close to them, going where, doing what they willed, yet. never perceived by the thousands of inhabit ants. They seemed to live in a kind of fourth dimensional state, a realm comparable to that which we people with ghosts and spirits. It was a most, uncanny, altogether absorbing, intensely interesting relationship; and sometimes, when I ponder on some general aspect of the great jungle, a forest of greenheart, a mighty rushing river, a crashing, blasting thunderstorm, my mind suddenly reverts by way of contrast to the tiny ghosts of springtails flitting silently among the terrible living chambers of the army ants.
On the following morning I expected to achieve still greater intimacy in the lives of the mummy soldier embryos, but at dawn every trace of nesting swarm, larvæ, pupae, and soldiers was gone. A few dead workers were being already carried off by small ants which never would have dared approach them in life. A big blue morpho butterfly flapped slowly past out of the jungle, and in its wake came the distant notes — high and sharp — of the white-fronted ant birds, and I knew that the legionaries were again abroad, radiating on their silent, dynamic paths of life from some new temporary nest deep in the jungle.
- Atlantic Monthly for April, 1917, p. 520.↩