Life Among the Ants

Nature is full of drama—scenes of love and life played out daily in nature, such as sharp-tailed grouse doing a mating dance in springtime, or in autumn, mountain sheep rams banging heads together to sort out issues of dominance and submission.

Some scenes are best viewed with a macro lens.

Our son, Kevin, and his family, have been with us the last couple weeks, and Kevin and I have been fishing and floating on the Big Hole River. On our last outing, we pulled into shore at midday and we found a log in the shade of a cottonwood tree for a lunch break.

After finishing my sandwich I glanced down at my feet and saw one of those dramas playing out. A few flakes of bread crust dropped to the ground while we were eating and ants were gathering to make sure this precious windfall of food wouldn’t go to waste. In fact, it was the sight of a large flake of crust moving on the ground that first caught my eye. Large is a subjective description of course. In this case, a flake ¼” by 1/8” was large, considering the size of the ants which were a diminutive 1/16” long.

A group of ants, possibly around a dozen, were working on this shred of bread crust. There was plenty of help on the team to move the bounty, though they had to move the crust over an obstacle course of twigs, shreds of leaves and other debris. One ant showed off super strength. This one had a tiny flake of crust and the ant scurried across a little patch of bare ground, like a kindergartner carrying a sheet of Styrofoam across a playground.

Ants are one of our most widespread creatures and are native to every continent except Antarctica, and a few large islands, such as Greenland. Over 12,000 ant species have been classified, though entomologists estimate there are at least 22,000 species.

Ants communicate with each other by pheromones, chemical signals ants transmit, which other ants are able to pick up with their antennae. That is how all those ants knew to come scurrying to team up to salvage my breadcrumbs.

While the ants working at my feet were tiny and inoffensive, there are other ants capable of being far more than uninvited guests at a picnic. One afternoon while we were camping I was cooking dinner on the charcoal grill. While turning burgers, it suddenly felt like my legs were on fire. A swarm of fire ants were on my legs and actively attacking. Naturally, I jumped back and brushed the ants off my legs, though the toxins associated with their bites continued to irritate for hours.

If we look closely, we often see ants crawling along riverbanks, or on streamside rocks. Naturally, some of those ants fall in the water where fish often scarf them up when they get the opportunity. There are many flies designed to resemble ants and it’s a good idea to keep a few ant patterns in the fly box. Personally, I don’t often remember to use them until I conclude nothing else is working. Still, they have saved fishing days often enough to keep them in mind, especially if I’m fishing along a rocky shoreline, or downstream from an irrigation diversion structure.

Rarely, we may see swarms of flying ants along the river. Once, when fishing the Yellowstone River, I wasn’t catching anything while Kevin was constantly into fish. I asked him what kind of fly he was using, and he said he’d seen a swarm of flying ants while walking to the water and was using an ant pattern. A couple summers ago, while camping on the Big Hole I saw swarms of flying ants just about the time dinner was ready. If I’d been thinking, I would have told my wife to put dinner on hold while I checked for a feeding frenzy.

That, of course, might have led to another kind of drama. Guess I’ll just imagine what might have been and not push my luck.

The white spot in the above photo is that bread crust. If you look closely you may be able to see a couple ants.