Thursday, February 14, 2013
Leaf Cutter Ants, by Magdalena
Another fascinating story to share, written by our talented friend, Magdalena. Enjoy!
Pheromones, Perfumes and Leaf cutter ants
By Magdalena Herreshoff 09/25/2012- 10/16/2012
Leaf cutter ants are very busy insects. They live in large colonies of up to 8 million ants and have dens with numerous chambers and tunnels that are fifteen to twenty feet deep into the ground. The average sized quarter-of-an- inch worker ants, the non-productive daughters of the queen, perform all the hard work of harvesting the food and carrying it to the nest to become fungus for their larvae.
When Daniel spots a trail of leaf cutter ants while taking a walk around the Hosteria Uzhupud, he grabs my arm and tells me “Watch out. “Don’t step on the ants, you will ruin their day.” As I kneel down to get a closer look, I see little pieces of green moving in a straight line towards a nest I cannot see.
I once spotted a colony of leaf cutter ants traveling a swooping cable of a suspension bridge over a
swift moving river in the Oriente. Each of them was carrying a piece of bright green leaf twice their
size. I wondered if they ever pushed each other off the cable. I ran across the bridge but did not see
any infractions. Although I could walk to the other side of the river in less than 2 minutes, it was mind boggling to contemplate how long it would take a leaf cutter ant to march with its heavy load to the other side.
The leaf cutter worker ants remind me of the indigenous women who carry huge loads of various
verdant grasses on their backs. When I come upon these women from behind, all I can see is a part of
their sturdy legs with small black shoes worn off to one side. Passing them by car, I will stretch my head back to detect the dark indigo or red flare of their skirts nearly reaching the ground in front of them. Yesterday, when crossing the newly built Uzhupud Puente, two women appeared from a dirt path below carrying huge loads. These walking mules of Azuay, mostly old women, strained against the bright sun, their hair disheveled from the grasses sticking over their black-banded creamy white woven hats.
My friend Chris told me the leaf cutter ants, besides eating young green leafs, also eat the inside of
orange peels. He had thrown out a fresh orange peel carelessly into the yard. The next day he found
the peel transformed, dry and with lots of holes in it. Curious what ate it; he put some half orange rinds on a plate and came back repeatedly to watch what was going on. The leaf cutter ants had found the rinds and were all over them. “Within the hour the rinds had been perforated and hollowed out,” he said. The next time I visited Chris he had put out four half rinds for me to watch. The rinds looked like a roving ant kingdom. Ants hustled in and out of the rinds, sometimes rudely shoving one another off a precipice of white skin, but mostly they were chewing off the inner membrane with their jaws quivering a thousand times a second and then carrying the bit-off piece on their backs like a spinnaker sail swaying forwards and sideways as if reaching for an invisible wild wind.
Bending over me while watching the ants Chris explained further: “One day I saw the ants all perfectly quiet inside the orange rind. “No one moved” he said and burst out laughing: “They were taking a nap!” I watched the ants for a long time, but did not see any of them taking a nap. I watched them climb in and over the rinds, walk single file laying down powerful pheromone trails while using their antennae as “noses” to find their way to and fro the nest. When one ant dropped his leaf, another ant from the same colony would come up behind him, pick it up and dutifully carry it back to the nest. All this was done with the aid of pheromone scents.
Leaf cutter ant pheromones, produced by glands found throughout the ant’s body, are rubbed on the
trail with the abdomen. Every ant, marching the trail single file, leaves its scent behind adding on to
the earlier ones mixing up a blend of scents from deep down the ant’s underworld. When enemy colony ants are senses their pheromones take on volatile overtones. If only I could have a whiff of that aroma.
I wonder if it is anything like the perfumes I concoct blending unusual scents such as Oud, outrageously expensive oil made from the resin of the Agar tree. The scent of Oud is so potent that a woman, standing on the opposite side in the room at a dinner party, locked eyes with me, wove through the crowd towards me and said: “What is that smell you have on? It is very unusual”. Eager to tell her all about Oud, I started to expound on its spiritual qualities, but before I could finish, I did go on a bit, she had backed away from me. Oud had both attracted and repelled her. I was intrigued - what had Oud done to her?
The leaf cutter ant pheromones, I imagine, have to be pretty earthy, perhaps like Oud or raunchy like
Musk, a secretion from the anal glands of animals often used as a base note in perfumery. It must
have overtones of blind trust and extrasensory intelligence, a strange brew of juxtaposition. My muse
transports me back to an incident in the 1970s in San Francisco, when a Gestalt therapist had led a
large group of us into rather unusual exercises to heighten our intuitive awareness. This man, a self-
proclaimed guru dressed in a long white gown, arms stretched out towards the heavens, suggested
we get on all fours, close our eyes and let our noses lead us. People crawled around the floor smelling
armpits, behinds, and whatever else they encountered, quickly losing all propriety. Smells had taken
over all sensibilities.
Could Chris, watching the ants intently for hours, have been unwittingly affected by their pheromones? Coincidentally, it had been the day of the Fall Equinox when he had seen the leaf cutter ants “take a nap”. I researched if leaf cutter ants napped and found no reference. I did read that the queen makes up a very attractive cocktail of pheromones that draws all the workers around her and that she knows what is going on within the colony at all times even if she is not in direct contact with the ants. Apparently, the pheromones give her psychic abilities. Perhaps by bending repeatedly over the leaf cutter ants’ frantic eating of orange rind skin on the auspicious day of the Fall Equinox, Chris had been captured pheromonally and suspended in a curve of time where he could “see” the ants take a nap.
Getting up slowly from kneeling down at the ant trail, I am a little dizzy. I tell myself to be aware of
invisible pheromones or perfumes which unexpectedly may spin my head around. I quietly walk away to continue the stroll around the Hosteria. Daniel catches up with me eager to tell me more: “You know the queen lives to be quite elderly-she can live for fifteen or twenty years, compared with the worker ant, which lives merely one to two years. All the queen does is breed young until the day she dies at which time the colony is doomed and slowly dies off.” No queen, no pheromones, no leaf cutter ants.