Ant Raft

June 8, 2021 |

A gallon jug of water out on the ground each night to cool for morning drink, but last night left the lid 1/8th-inch ajar. This morning a 2” ant ball floated at the top. They are tiny red ants (Solenopsis invicta) 1/10th inch long and the colony had come marching up the jug thirsty all night to drop, ant-paddle, and form a raft of about 3000 members.  I almost swallowed the bolus like a thirsty drunk a martini olive.  

Dumping the raft on the sands, the colony bounced alive and instantly spread an expanding circle outward like a pebble propagating a wave on a pond. The propagation rate of individuals in the increasing circle was a foot every three seconds until, in ten seconds the ball was no more. Every one survived! 

As they disappeared over their little event horizons butt still in my view, they crawled over and bit me a hundred times, from which there was no escape since I wasn’t going to give up the best seat in the house. There, I fashioned a theory from them and my personal experiences of human reaction to catastrophe. 

Now we know what ants do, and people react in kind. The medulla floods the bloodstream with epinephrine, cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, testosterone, estrogen, and norepinephrine. The difference between blood in man and hemolymph in ants is the latter has no red blood cells to circulate oxygen, and yet this cocktail goes to every spine of the body. The tendency reaction is to cling to the nearest dear thing to you. Psychologists call it crisis bonding. But after the strike is over, it’s every man or ant for himself. At the end, they regroup to co-exist with the stronger tie of the memory.  

Though called a raft, the float is a slightly flat-bottomed sphere that, due to the tight interweave of arms, legs, and antennas, is as light as a cork. This formation is particular to the fire ant, and if Solomon the great entomologist advises to ‘go to the ants and learn lessons from it’ then man may make bubble rafts to bob waves across the oceans. During cloudbursts and floods here in the Sonora their passageways fill up with water and force the ants to evacuate their home. Instead of scattering individually, a layer of ants come together to hold tight that serves a base for the rest of the colony to comfortably mill around on. Due to the tight weave knit of the ants, water cannot penetrate the raft allowing the ants to stay dry and buoyant. They float up and out the nest on the tide, reminding me of riding the freight top through Mexico with dozens of tramps. 

The ants can remain in the raft formation for weeks if necessary, or, when the floodwaters subside they are able to establish a new underground home beneath wherever they land. I could have left the raft in the jug for weeks and it would have survived, while I went thirsty. Like people, they had bonded, and once the strike ended on the sands, it was every ant for himself in all directions. They returned to central, crawled over my feet and body biting again, and dug a new home beneath me.  



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