An ode to ants.
### Cameras have been keeping me busy — and the relentless rain that turns the landscape to soup isn’t helping me move quickly. I’m so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open, and am frantically prepping for another several day camping trip. So! Thought I’d pull up and old post about ants. Although often a nuisance, they are pretty awesome creatures. You can learn more about ants here. ###
I keep flinching and slapping at the invisible bugs that land and leap away so fast I can’t tell sometimes if they are real or merely a figment of my imagination. By the time I slap my arm, they are gone, and all that lingers is that faint distant tickle on my skin. Craig peers up at me over his little wire glasses. We are wading through 25 years of radio-collaring lion data and I am playing the dusty, bugbitten, in-desperate-need-of-beer secretary. He gives me a withering stare as I twitch murderously at the bugs that seem to molest only me. “It’s all in your imagination,” he says with a playfully dismissive wave of his hand as he hunches back over the dusty files. Seething in indignation, I am finally successful in my arthropod assassination attempts and throw my tiny offender at my academic advisor. “I don’t want your pickings!” he squawks. Merciless, I catch another and drop it in his lap. Satisfied, I resume recording.
I think the bugs are the only thing I dislike more than the baboons that crap on our veranda. The ants recently invaded our drop toilet (the only one in town where you still have to squat), milling about on the concrete slab in typical ant frenzy. African ants seem to be generally unstoppable. They swarm across our kitchen countertop so thick that the white laminate is completely obscured. Yesterday I saw them dragging a dead tsetse fly across our windowsill. They are tiny pinprick ants, so ghostly as they crawl across your skin that you’re never quite sure if you’ve merely imagined them. But we don’t imagine them in our food. They are baked into our bread, spooned into our leftovers, drowned in our drinking water…They even invaded my canister of refrigerated Lindt chocolates. They flail hopelessly in our wash water and get stuck in the little holes of our makeshift shower bucket. I think sometimes they bite – the backs of my legs are covered with little red itchy bumps, and if they aren’t ant bites then they might be tick larvae, which is even more disgusting.
As much as I would prefer not to share my shower with a thousand tiny freeriders, I have this strange love/hate/admiration/disgust relationship with the colonial creatures. Philipp tells me how some ants raise aphid “livestock,” carrying their little aphids around to leaves and then milking them of their leaf-juice. Some ants live in little black balls on the whistling-thorn Acacias and attack hungry ungulates that dare to browse on their branches. One day while scouring game trails for fresh carnivore sign, I discovered a series of 4-inch wide paths that wove between the trees. I turned to the camera trapping guru by my side, the funny German who’s spent the last decade in the remote west-African bush. Ants! Philipp says.Yes, the ants move in such volume that they create barren little tracks through the woodland grass. Sometimes we can see the ant army marching in rigid formation outside the Lion House. They appear out of nowhere against our cinderblock corners and trudge across the dirt. I don’t know where they are going, but they look like they’re on a mission. Perhaps they heard that there was something in the outhouse.
The things that live inside…the cameras
Whenever I rock up to a camera trap, I sort of hold my breath and brace myself for what I’m going to find. Sometimes I find nothing — elephants have tossed the camera off the tree and into the green grassy oblivion, or hyenas have left dribblings of mangled plastic and tooth-dented batteries — but stories about the never ending crusade to protect the cameras from overenthusiastic large mammals will come another day. Today is about the wildlife that try to make my cameras home.
I’m always a little surprised at what I find. Geckos love to lay their eggs in the metal cases, though they and the skinks tend to act rather molested when I disturb them.
Other inhabitants are a bit slower to react, like this caterpillar:
And then there are some mysteries…
The only thing that I really can’t bear is the ants. Don’t get me wrong, ants are cool – and they do *really* cool things – but they also bite. And when they’ve turned a camera into their home (as in the photo below — those white bits are eggs or larvae), they aren’t particularly welcoming to researchers. I’ll try to get som clearer photos this field season – because I guarantee you, there will be many, many ants to come.