Forget everything you’ve always thought about ants, or almost. In a garden or a forest, when you observe a colony, you have the impression that the life of each of them is well regulated, that they are doing their job without ever giving way. It almost resembles a hierarchical society with the very human idea that at the forefront we find the queen, warm in her CEO costume, ready to distribute the good points by appointing her most deserving workers.
In fact, among these living beings that appeared more than 100 million years ago, there are also rebels but also lazy people and even super warriors. “In short, an ant colony is organized chaos!”, Audrey Dussutour and Antoine Wystrach decide from the first pages of their book The Odyssey of the Ants. These two antologists from Toulouse take readers on the path of some of the 13,000 species identified today, hand-picked. An opus with scientific content that sounds like a fairy tale and science fiction novel.
Able to defeat prey that is up to 10,000 times their weight, we discover them in return doctors, drug addicts or even suicide bombers. This is the case Colobopsis who do not hesitate to explode their abdomen and release a poison that can knock out more opponents. A victim to protect the nest.
In their book, where they focused on 75 species, the two researchers chose to focus on feed, these grandmothers coming out of the anthill to find food for the youngest, who are busy tending the larvae and organizing the anthill. Especially men who, unlike the image of heroes presented in cartoons 1,001 ben and Antzis “housed, fed, bleached”.
These workers then take all the risks. Far from simple stormtroopers, with their brains no bigger than a pinhead, they manage to do incredible things for the colony. “These are creatures that are capable of solving incredible challenges and that we often have no idea about. For example, they have mastered agriculture for millions of years, they use antibiotics, they know how to build traps. The colonies are not communities, but families, as they are all genetically linked to each other, and when the colony functions, it works for a common goal, ”insists Laure Dussutour.
But since they are also very different from each other, they use very different means to achieve this. Some, equipped with nearly 360-degree eyes, use them to map the terrain in timelapse mode. Others, blind, use their olfactory system and the collective to reach their prey.
Less known, the species Camponotus atriceps managed to become friends with the larva of a butterfly, Anatole rossi. It was ecologist Gary Ross who made this discovery while closely following this butterfly in Veracruz (Mexico). The larva secretes honeydew when the little shepherds love it, and in return they take care of it by creating a kind of sheepfold where it provides shelter. “He observed this collaboration between larvae and ants, an absolutely fascinating association. He tells this story about a small fold of sheep, where the ants guard the larva during the day, where it comes out at night. Even during the metamorphosis, they protect her,” says Audrey Dussutour.
Sometimes psychopathic, often inspiring
If they highlight all the possibilities of these little beasts, the two authors of this amazing odyssey have not overlooked the slightly less friendly sides of the ants. We discover them as slaves. With species whose queens have nothing to envy the very bloody Marie Tudor. Half psychopaths, these Epimyrma do not hesitate to pretend to be dead at the door of their cousins’ nests. The latter brings them in again. And this is where she reveals her true face and murders the workers. “She will then suffocate the queen of the nest for two to three months by suffocating her and thus keeping her alive. Everyone has their own strategy, some throw stones in the face of others, ”says the scientist and laughs.
A scenario worthy Game of Thrones, where their bodies can become a weapon. As in the case of the ball ant, whose stings can make even the strongest faint. Or the fire ant that invaded the United States and crashed into the electrical circuits of many buildings. They attack en masse and their bites can cause allergies, even cause death by anaphylactic shock.
Nothing to do with Tapinom, this little black ant who is having fun at the moment, nests it in the houses of Corsica or Brittany. “It goes into houses, it annoys people, but it does not hurt. Do not leave food lying around, that’s what attracts them. No matter how much you wash the pheromone traces they leave behind with bleach, they will make new ones, ”emphasizes the Toulouse antologist.
Instead of getting rid of it, she agrees to live with it. And to be inspired by it. As is already the case for some researchers who have used the algorithms for telecommunications or the shipowners’ architecture. Or even more recently, the ability of some of them to differentiate tumor cells through their olfactory system. “Above all, they are useful for the ecosystem of which we are a part. They are very responsible for soil aeration, seed dispersal, and often we do not think about it, pollination, ”concludes Audrey Dussutour. To meditate on when one is tempted to send a good kick into the anthill.