We went camping this past weekend. It was wonderful. We gathered dead&down wood for our modest campfires, not only to enjoy in the evening, but also for use as a cooking fire. Ah, on Bratwurst night, we broke up many sticks, including one particular 2-inch thick stick and laid the pieces in the fire.
And then there was drama . . .
Out of a hole under the bark of one flaming piece of wood, 10 ants emerged. Big fat black carpenter ants, 3 of them a good half inch long, double the size of the 7 others. Frantically, they all milled around in a panic.
Well, shoot. We didn’t really want to watch them burn to death in front of us, so I used another stick to push the fiery stick down towards some cool ashes on the edges. The ants ran in circles, frightened, on the far end of the stick. One burned his head slightly, running back up towards the flames, then quickly retreating to the relative safety of the far edge. Each ant examined the “precipice” of that far edge–a drop of about 2 inches—a long way for an ant. Each then withdrew, and looked again. The smaller ants huddled together, peering over the side. The fire grew bigger, crept down the stick towards them.
Several times a large ant jumped off of the stick, then panicked and clambered back on, covered with ashes, only to face again the smoke and flames. The little ones helped to clean off the ashes from the jumper. Finally, one by one, the 3 big ones crawled to the edge, leaped off for good, and ran across the still cool ashes there to safety. Each ran a different direction at a different time. It was every ant for himself, so to speak.
But the little ones remained clustered together, and ran back and forth as a group. Finally, they seemed to make a decision. They went back to the entrance of their former home, and arranged themselves in a circle around the nest opening, heads touching in the center, butts out. They were prepared to die together.
This was not good. I didn’t want to watch. I put a small chunk of wood as a step for them at the end of the stick. I took a small branch, and hit the burning wood softly, to vibrate it. The 7 remaining ants immediately backed up and scurried together to the safety end of the stick. Time was running short. The ants needed to act soon and seemed to know it. They touched feelers again, then hurled themselves en masse off of the stick to the “step” and finally onto the ashes, a little black herd of ants rushing for safety. All were saved.
What is the point of this story? Well, I don’t know actually, but was glad it ended the way it did. It was very interesting to see the different behaviors, and surprising to see how the smaller ants behaved. It does make me wonder about what the other creatures on the planet know, and how varied is their capacity to communicate, and even perhaps to empathize and think.
What finally happened to those ants? The smaller ones scurried through the rock fire ring, and went back to the woods together. The big ones each staked out a separate rock, and evidently deciding that it might be a good place to settle down. They were still there 2 days later, foraging for crumbs in the daytime, hiding during cooking time, and no doubt enjoying their new warm hideways.