Chemical Weapons (Part I)

We as humans despise chemical weapons. They’ve been outlawed according to the Laws of War due to their inhumane and indiscriminate killing-potential. Such weapons include nerve gases and, the most well known, mustard gas. However, in the animal kingdom, there are no such boundaries.

A wide variety of both insects and animals use chemicals to stun, confuse, or kill other organisms. The alcon blue butterfly uses pheromones similar to the ones used by Myrmica ant species to not have to take care of their young. In this case, the worker ants seem to identify the larvae of the alcon blue butterfly as their own, carrying them back to the nest and caring for them until they hatch. When the butterflies do hatch, they continue to carry the scent of the host ants and walks out of the nest unharmed.

Communication

Communication is something all organisms require. It allows for interaction within and even between species. For humans, it helps us to exchange information or simply enjoy conversation. It helps a poison dart frog signal to any potential predators that it is poisonous or helps a male gorilla establish his dominance over the group. In whatever form it comes in, it conveys a message.

In the ant, communication is done through pheromones — chemical signals they produce. These pheromones can signal a number of different things: danger, food, and the strength of the queen, to name a few. On top of that, the intensity of the pheromone indicates its importance and brings fewer or more ants to a desired location. Whatever the case may be, they allow ants to communicate with one another, allowing them to work as a single organism.

The Velvet Ant

Despite the rather blatant name of an ant, velvet ants are actually a family of wasps. While the “velvet” portion of the name refers to the bright colour their hairs have, the “ant” portion of the name refers to the females of the species not having wings like the males do. The bright colour is meant as a warning for potential predators.

This bright colouration is common in other small animals such as frogs or caterpillars, and is not just for show either. According to the Schmidt pain index, velvet ants rated at a 3, giving them another name — cow killer — and, much like their bright-coloured brethren, they sting only in defense.

The velvet ant’s exoskeleton is quite tough, allowing the female to invade the nests of ground-nesting bees or wasps to lay their young. They accomplish this by injecting their eggs into the larvae. The young hatch and consume the larva from the inside.

Ant-sized Cows

If you’ve read my post from October 7, 2016 titled “Insects & Agriculture (Part II)”, you may recall some info on the relation that ants and aphids have with each other. Well, just over the weekend, I spotted ants sitting in the leaves of an apple tree. They weren’t moving around too much: just pacing back and forth along the leaf. But as I looked more closely, I noticed tiny green bumps on the leaves. These bumps weren’t the regular bumps you see on tree leaves that indicate that insects have been eating away at them but were, in fact, aphids. You can see a couple of the (albeit blurry) photos I took right here.

Unlike the way ants treat almost every other creature in their vicinity, ants treat aphids with the utmost care. By letting the aphids suck the moisture from the plant, the ants are able to obtain the honeydew that is produced by the aphids. While the ants provide the aphids with protection and “greener pastures”, the aphids pay the ants with the sweetest drops of honeydew.

Ants & Slavery

Slavery is one of those things that most, if not all, people look down on. Despite having such a negative light, it does increase productivity. People would capture slaves from neighboring/opposing factions and use them to perform the hardest labors, like farming and building. Societies where slavery was common, such as Ancient Egypt and many European countries became so reliant on slavery that the loss of slaves was actually detrimental to their society. Ants are no strangers to slavery either.

In some species, raiding is done quite commonly, where ants kill off rival colonies and take the larva for their own colony. However, there are a few species that take this step even further, but attacking ants of different species and bringing back the brood, dispute being different. The brood hatch and grow up believing that the colony they grew up in is their own, even helping its captors with future raids. It is a slave in a parasitic colony of ants. There are even parasitic ants that enslave adult ants of its hosts.

However, things aren’t all that bad. In some cases, slave-ants rebel and kill a lot of the parasitic ant larvae. This not only lowers that number of slave-makers but also saves the colonies from which they were taken.