A saga long in the making

I was examining the progress of the spring revival in the yard yesterday and noticing that the deer had discovered my almond tree the previous night, which means it now sports a few less leaves than it did – this occurs every few weeks in the summer and seems to do the sapling no harm at all. And then I noticed a movement near the base of the reappearing dog fennel plants, and went in for the closer look. The tale that follows is one of patience, frustration, trials, tribulations, speculations about evolution, and just plain weirdness.

red ant with cranefly
This area appears to be an ideal habitat for a medium-sized species of red ant, since they’re everywhere – quite possibly Camponotus castaneus, but don’t quote me on that. They’re harmless, non-biting and non-irritating, and don’t appear to do any damage to buildings or trees, instead maintaining their colonies underground. The specimen seen here had collected a dead cranefly, and was industriously bearing it back to the colony. Curious as to where this actually was, and of course being me, I began following its progress across the yard. I was shooting a hyperactive subject in natural light, so the photo quality isn’t what I consider optimal, but they serve to illustrate the journey.

coping with a snag
It would be accurate to say this was slow going. The ant was probably 5-6mm in length, the cranefly four times that, and the terrain a mixture of almost-bare earth and thick grasses and weeds. Getting snagged was a frequent occurrence, and here, the ant had actually determined that one of the cranefly legs was the entire holdup, and scampered down it partway to simply sever it and go on.

leg detached, good to go
From time to time, the ant would release its prize and wander a short distance back and forth, no more than a centimeter or two – I’m speculating that this was seeking the strongest scent trail to carry its bounty back to the colony. Ants lay down scent trails everywhere they go, and are very sensitive to how much the scent has faded over time; the stronger trail means the one more recently traveled, which generally puts it closer to home. It’s a mixture of simplicity and probability – ants wander all over in search of food, but they can encounter the trail of another ant and follow it back readily. Since I’ve seen this occur with practically no wrong turns, I have to assume that they ability to tell age is refined down to seconds or less – they know which way to follow the trails, as if there’s a direction indicator. In fact, thinking about it now, I suspect that ants lay their trails down only when heading away from the colony, so the direction is evident.

The reuse of these trails mean that, inevitably, there will be an encounter with another ant out foraging, and the two will join forces to bring the find back to the colony. More or less.

cooperative red ants
The bare truth is, with something this big and terrain this varied, it’s easy for two ants to decide on different paths around or over obstacles, and both of them take the initiative in leading the way. While both are heading in the same direction, the variations are enough to cause quite a bit of comedic fumbling. One tugging in a certain direction would often be enough to pivot the cranefly and lift the other into the air, suspended by its jaws and waving all six legs madly in an effort to gain a toehold.

disagreeing ants
Yes, these two have gone up different blades of grass and are tugging in opposite directions. Apparently nothing like letting the other take the lead, or scouting out the best path ahead, has ever evolved into ants (or at least not this species.) To all appearances, it was only because they were following the same scent trail that they managed any cooperation at all – but there was no hostility either, no possessiveness or attempt to chase off the other.

At one point, both ants stopped to examine the trail, but one made it back faster than the other, seizing the cranefly and trotting off; the second came back to find the cranefly missing, and began an agitated search of the immediate vicinity to locate it. This demonstrated how poor their vision really is, because the large cranefly was wobbling through the grasses not 3 cm away at times, but never spotted, and the slowpoke never bothered to follow the trail to catch up; the internal command seemed to be, “It was right here,” and not, “Harvey must have taken it – go find him.”

red ant tearing off wing
As the ant-in-possession reached the pampas grass, still mostly burnt-off stubs from the winter, it made a serious mistake: getting the body of the cranefly trapped in a small crevice, it tugged too hard on a wing and tore it off, triumphantly bearing this back to the colony (and never noticing that it was making remarkable time and not breathing half as hard now.) I had spotted the likely opening to their warren and the increased traffic among other ants, so it was only a matter of time before another discovered the cranefly lodged in the grass, fetching it out and continuing the journey.

recovered loss
The trip had taken its toll on the cranefly, which now had no legs and only part of one wing, but the breast meat was largely intact, so still good.

As the ant neared the opening to the nest, it dropped the cranefly and began an agitated dance back and forth with a few other ants, I can only guess they were communicating something. It didn’t last long, and within moments three ants were proudly, if again somewhat erratically, bearing the prize down to the colony. And another drama in the leaves comes to a close.

bringing home the bacon
The distance covered, from the time of my discovery, was better than three meters, and you can see the terrain covered in the photos. This took 45 minutes, which not only tells you the life of an ant, but the life of a nature photographer as well; now imagine what it takes to capture a species or behavior not ridiculously common. Some photographers (not me) spend days out in the field trying for the right images. It’s not just the patience that’s necessary, but the kind of mind that finds this stuff fascinating – and I’ll just leave that hanging out there for you to speculate upon…

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