a story in which no ants sustain injuries

I saw two ants wrestling on the counter a short while after I brought some dirt in for a plant. I got out the 40x magnifier, not something I’d normally think to do, but I saw clearly that each had the other’s leg in its pincers. A dark brown ant and a burnt sienna ant, of identical size and shape. It appeared to be a stalemate. Neither had the strength to bite off the other’s leg. They gripped each other’s leg for several minutes, expending a lot of energy to try to get a better position. Then the dark brown let go of the leg and grabbed on to an antenna of the burnt sienna. I thought this might be decisive. The burnt sienna seemed uncomfortable with its antenna caught in the other’s pincers, but the dark brown could do nothing with the antenna except grip it. Then the dark brown moved to the eye of the burnt sienna, and I thought this then must be decisive, but it simply gripped the sides of the other ant’s eye and could not bite through. This continued for a while and then I saw the burnt sienna start to fold itself in half, reaching its abdomen toward the dark brown as if to sting it, though I observed no stinger. It couldn’t quite reach the other with the tip of its abdomen.

Occasionally another dark brown would walk past but not do much. At one point, a dark brown bystander went so far as to climb on top of its friend from behind, as if it might join the fight, but instead it seemed only to want to give advice. I thought it might not want to risk getting stung or bitten. So no dark browns would help. Then the burnt sienna had a friend come and immediately join the fight, and I figured this must be it. The burnt sienna ants each gripped a different leg of the dark brown and both seemed to want to break it apart or sting it. Then a third burnt sienna arrived and grabbed a leg. The dark brown now gripped the antenna of the original combatant, but then let go and grabbed hold of the leg of another of the ants. The action was getting somewhat more chaotic.

With three attackers now the dark brown curled itself up, either to submit to its death or in a final attempt to protect its appendages. The three burnt sienna were looking pretty mean at this point and I thought the dark brown might die of exhaustion from defending itself. I was often very afraid, myself, almost intolerably afraid of what would happen. And now I saw that they were trying to bundle up the dark brown in some silk produced from their abdomens. And so there was no stinger. They simply meant to tie up the dark brown in something sticky. This seemed like how it would end, maybe with the burnt sienna hauling away the bound ant for later use.

But then a couple of other dark browns arrived, really just one with another standing an inch behind it. It sort of nudged on the body parts of one of the burnt sienna that itself was grabbing the first dark brown. And then, in a moment that was both very dramatic and anticlimactic, the burnt sienna all let go and departed. They left their victim thoroughly bound in silk. Now two more dark brown moved in and the three free ants began to untie their friend by biting off the silk. This took a while, but you could see the ant start to get free. Long after it was freed, two or three other ants continued to bite the silk from its exterior. The silk was not visible except by its effect on the ant, and from the sight of the others picking at it with their mouths. The silk was never visible except as a glimmer of light when the burnt sienna ants first began to secrete it. I had my flashlight in one hand to illuminate all this.

Now freed, the first dark brown continued to clean itself, folding in half to reach its rear parts. One of its friends did the same, folding to the point where it seemed it might snap apart, and then suddenly straightening out and beginning to run about at exactly the same velocity as all the other ants, at ant speed.

This all took about 20 minutes and resulted in no apparent injuries. Initially I thought it could end fast. After a couple minutes I had thought perhaps the two were cooperating, the dark brown and the burnt sienna, that one needed an infected leg removed and all the biting was just the two trying to get leverage to snap off the leg. After it was clear they were fighting, I was sure one would find a weak place or just bite right through the head. Both had good sized mandibles that spread just wide enough that you could easily imagine one breaking through the skeleton of the other. A few times I thought I saw something wet oozing from a bite mark but it was just a gleam of light on some ant slobber.

I have not been studying ants for very long. I believe these ants became entangled by accident, that they were just overprotecting. They couldn’t risk unbiting. I believe also that the first burnt sienna were unintelligent and may have confused this dark brown ant for something it should eat, or at least disable. The dark brown ants all seemed to know the whole thing was stupid and would lead to nothing but silk. It’s possible but unlikely they wanted the silk all along. It was not clear if they were ingesting it but they seemed familiar with the routine. They didn’t pause to remove it from their mandibles, it was more like they would pick it off and just drop it, then pick again, in a continuous motion more or less. Or they were making a series of incisions, chomping at the strands to cut them. I sometimes thought I might be seeing the silk itself, but the physical sense of it and how it was affecting the ant was so clear that I couldn’t tell if I was filling in the silk. It seemed to snap apart visibly as the ant regained its range of motion in steps.

July 2019