National Geographic : 1934 Aug
THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE The fungus-growing ants, chiefly inhabit ing tropical America, but also extending into the Temperate Zone as far north as New Jersey, actually plant and cultivate their food. They belong to a distinct group, called the Attinae, and all they ever eat is a little mushroom which they them selves grow. Any evening, on a walk in southern Texas or in practically any part of tropical or subtropical America, one will see files of these ants, each ant bearing a bit of leaf. For this they have been called "para sol ants" and "leaf-cutting ants" (see Color Plate V and illustration, page 174). One species is a terrible pest to citrus planters in the Tropics. The colonies are enormous. Sometimes an orange tree will be stripped of leaves in a single night. The ants carry these leaves into their nests along well-beaten trails. There they are chewed into a paste by the smaller workers. This paste is used as a stratum on which to grow the minute mushrooms on which the ants live. The smallest mem bers of the colony serve as gardeners as well as nurses and take care of the crop. For fertilizer most of them use leaves, but some use bits of straw, and others caterpillar droppings, on which to raise the fungus. The queen ant, before she leaves her par ent nest, takes into her mouth some spores of this fungus. When she lays her first eggs she crushes them and deposits these spores upon them. The fungus starts and main tains itself there until her second crop of eggs develops into young ants, who go out at once to obtain new food for the home garden. TERMITE IS KIN TO COCKROACHES There is an old saying that termites are called "white ants" because they are not white and because they are not ants. A true ant is a relative of the bees and wasps; the termite is kin to the cockroaches. But these two groups, so widely different in origin, have developed somewhat similar ways of living. In termites we have the differentiation into soldiers and workers, and we have the sexual forms, males and females (see Color Plate VI). The latter, however, pair for life; so, in stead of the widowed queen that we have in the ant nest, we find in the termites a king and a queen. Their method of estab lishing the colony is essentially the same. There are flights when the air is filled with flying white ants, their wings dropping off much more easily than do those of the true ants. I remember one occasion in the Solomon Islands when such a flight occurred while we were at dinner, and we hastily withdrew from the vicinity of the lights in order to keep our soup from being entirely wings. These, however, are not mating flights, as in the ants, but are distributional flights. Pairs go out, find a suitable place, and commence housekeeping together. Like the ants, termites build various forms of houses, mounds, and tree nests, but often live in the heart of the tree it self. Their food consists almost entirely of wood, which they chew up and swallow, but some of them raise fungus, reminding one of the fungus-growing ants. With one or two exceptions, they are denizens of the dark. Exposure to heat causes the death of most species imme diately. They are much more injurious than ants. In certain tropical countries the termites' habit of destroying books makes it difficult to maintain libraries. Even as far north as Washington, D. C., it has been neces sary to replace floors in the National Mu seum and other public buildings on account of the depredations these insects have com mitted. Ants, like man, live in complicated so cieties. They recognize fellow citizens only by their odor, and any that do not smell the same are enemies. Ants have an intense patriotism, evinced by their willingness to fight and die for the home nest; and a touching devotion to their mother and to the babies in the nest. They are, for the most part, hard workers, and each individual does its utmost to contribute to the general welfare. They build compli cated homes, and they show a wise provi dence in the storage and preservation of food. The joker may say, also, that the ant has attained complete perfection in one field: the women do all the work. On the other hand, there are among ants morons, paupers, and other parasites; thieves, ingrates, murderers, and kidnap pers. So, in reply to a question which has been asked me in all seriousness: "Which is the more intelligent, man or the ant?" I feel inclined to reply: "It depends on the man-and the ant!"