I am a farmer by profession and a photographer at heart. I live in the midst of evergreen forests of the Western Ghats, in small village called Madodi, near Kodachadri in Karnataka. I have a keen interest in observing nature and wildlife around me. Other than the many Western Ghats endemics (including species of plants, birds and animals), I find myself drawn to Weaver Ants. These ants are very common in many parts of the world. They are found in India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines and Australia.
Weaver Ants make their nests by stitching leaves together. They usually make many nests in a single tree. Sometimes, they make many nests across many trees. Queen Ants govern these colonies. Weaver Ants are also abundant in the forests of Western Ghats. The species is important to us farmers as they eat small insects that can be harmful to crops.
My knowledge and scientific understanding of these ants are close to zero. If you don’t pay attention to them, they may seem like regular red coloured ants, but if you look them carefully, you will notice that they are amazing engineers. Their discipline and ability to team up and work together are extraordinary.
One day I was taking a walk in my farm when I saw some of these ants building a nest. Even though there are plenty of these ants around here, it is rare to see them in the process of building a nest. I quickly grabbed my camera and ran back to photograph them.
Weaver Ants first examine the leaves that can potentially be a part of their nest and then start building. They utilise their full strength to pull many leaves together.
Some of the ants, called worker ants, hold on to one end strongly and pull the leaves. Other ants follow them.
When I tried to photograph them up close, my camera ended up going a little too close to a nest there. Some of the ants seemed to be alert and began staring at me. It turned out that they are sentries, or security personnel, checking for possible attacks on the nest, and to see if I was a threat. When I moved my camera, they moved too, and I felt that they probably made an attempt to scare me. The other ants that were busy pulling the leaves never bothered about this and continued to build the nest.
There were supervisors too. These ants don’t bend the leaves or get actively involved in the process of building, but observe the proceedings carefully and might be doling out instructions.
On other occasions, I have seen some interesting behaviour in the way they make a bridge using their bodies to cover small gaps. They once crossed a gate this way!
Ants are known for their strength; they can lift items that are several times their body size and weight. These Weaver Ants are no exception. What makes it even more interesting is how they employ collective effort to do so. I once saw a group of ants carrying a dead bee much bigger than a single ant.
In one instance, an ant was easily holding on to a bee that was about to fall, while hanging mid air!
These ants have an interesting relationship with aphids. They collect a sweet liquid secreted by the aphids, called honeydew, and in return protect the aphids from predators.
When these ants meet, they exchange fluids or food by mouth-to-mouth transfer and this process is called trophallaxis. These unique ants have complex social interactions and we have much to learn from observing them.