Page images

Ch. V.]



Instead of descending this with their burdens, they cast them down on the top of the slope, whence they rolled down to the bottom, where another relay of labourers picked them up and carried them to the new burrow. It was amusing to watch the ants hurrying out with bundles of food, dropping them over the slope, and rushing back immediately for more. They also brought out great numbers of dead ants that the fumes of the carbolic acid had killed. A few days afterwards, when I visited the locality again, I found both the old barrows and the new one entirely deserted, and I thought they had died off ; but subsequent events convinced me that the survivors had only moved away to a greater distance.

It was fully twelve months before my garden was again invaded. I had then a number of rose-trees and also cabbages growing, which the ants seemed to prefer to everything else. The rose-trees were soon defoliated, and great havoc was made amongst the cabbages. I followed them to their nest, and found it about two hundred yards from the one of the year before. I poured down the burrows, as before, several buckets of water with carbolic acid. The water is required to carry the acid down to the lowest chambers. The ants, as before, were at once withdrawn from my garden; and two days afterwards, on visiting the place, I found all the survivors at work on one track that led directly to the old nest of the year before, where they were busily employed making fresh excavations. Many were bringing along pieces of the ant-food from the old to the new nests; others carried the undeveloped white pupæ and larvæ. It was a wholesale and entire migration; and the next day the formicarium down which I had last poured the carbolic acid was entirely deserted. I afterwards found that when much disturbed, and many of the ants destroyed, the survivors migrate to a new locality. I do not doubt that some of the leading minds in this formicarium recollected the nest of the year before, and directed the migration to it.

Don Francisco Velasquez informed me, in 1870, that he had a powder which made the ants mad, so that they bit and destroyed each other. He gave me a little of it, and it proved to be corrosive sublimate. I made several trials of it, and found it most efficacious in turning a large column of the ants. A little of it sprinkled across one of their paths in dry weather has a most surprising effect. As soon as one of the ants touches the white powder, it commences to run about wildly, and to attack any other ant it comes across. In a couple of hours, round balls of the ants will be found all biting each other; and numerous individuals will be seen bitten completely in two, whilst others have lost some of their legs or antennæ. News of the commotion is carried to the formicarium, and huge fellows, measuring three-quarters of an inch in length, that only come out of the nest during a migration or an attack on the nest or one of the working columns, are seen stalking down with a determined air, as if they would soon right matters. As soon, however, as they have touched the sublimate, all their stateliness leaves them : they rush about; their legs are seized hold of by some of the smaller ants already affected by the poison; and they themselves begin to bite, and in a short time become the centres of fresh balls of rabid ants. The sublimate can only be used effectively in dry weather. At Colon I found the Americans using coal Ch. V.]



tar, which they spread across their paths when any of them led to their gardens. I was also told that the Indians prevent them from ascending young trees by tying thick wisps of grass, with the sharp points downwards, round the stems. The ants cannot pass through the wisp, and do not find out how to surmount it, getting confused amongst the numberless blades, all leading downwards. I mention these different plans of meeting and frustrating the attacks of the ants at some length, as they are one of the greatest scourges of tropical America, and it has been too readily supposed that their attacks cannot be warded off. I myself was enabled, by using some of the means mentioned above, to cultivate successfully trees and vegetables of which the ants were extremely fond.

· Notwithstanding that these ants are so common throughout tropical America, and have excited the attention of nearly every traveller, there still remains much doubt as to the use to which the leaves are put. Some naturalists have supposed that they use them directly as food; others, that they roof their underground nests with them. I believe the real use they make of them is as a manure, on which grows a minute species of fungus, on which they feed ;—that they are, in reality, mushroom growers and eaters. This explanation is so extraordinary and unexpected, that I may be permitted to enter somewhat at length on the facts that led me to adopt it. When I first began my warfare against the ants that attacked my garden, I dug down deeply into some of their nests. In our mining operations we also, on two occasions, carried our excavations from below up through very large formicariums, so that all their underground workings were exposed to observation. I found their nests below to consist of numerous rounded chambers, about as large as a man's head, connected together by tunnelled passages leading from one chamber to another. Notwithstanding that many columns of the ants were continually carrying in the cut leaves, I could never find any quantity of these in the burrows, and it was evident that they were used up in some way immediately they were brought in. The chambers were always about three parts filled with a

[graphic][merged small]

speckled, brown, flocculent, spongy-looking mass of a light and loosely connected substance. Throughout these masses were numerous ants belonging to the smallest division of the workers, which do not engage in leafcarrying. Along with them were pupa and larvæ, not gathered together, but dispersed, apparently irregularly, throughout the flocculent mass. This mass, which I have called the ant-food, proved, on examination, to be composed of minutely subdivided pieces of leaves, withered to a brown colour, and overgrown and lightly connected together by a minute white fungus that rami

Ch. V.)


fied in every direction throughout it. I not only found this fungus in every chamber I opened, but also in the chambers of the nest of a distinct species that generally comes out only in the night-time, often entering houses and carrying off various farinaceous substances, and which does not make mounds above its nests, but long, winding passages, terminating in chambers similar to the common species, and always, like them, three parts filled with flocculent masses of fungus-covered vegetable matter, amongst which are the ant-nurses and immature ants. When a nest is disturbed, and the masses of ant-food spread about, the ants are in great concern to carry every morsel of it under shelter again ; and sometimes, when I had dug into a nest, I found the next day all the earth thrown out filled with little pits that the ants had dug into it to get out the covered up food. When they migrate from one part to another, they also carry with them all the ant-food from their old habitations. That they do not eat the leaves themselves I convinced myself; for I found near the tenanted chambers, deserted ones filled with the refuse particles of leaves that had been exhausted as manure for the fungus, and were now left, and served as food for larvæ of Staphylinido and other beetles.*

These ants do not confine themselves to leaves, but also carry off any vegetable substance that they find suitable for growing the fungus on. They are very partial to the inside white rind of oranges, and I have

* This theory that the leaf-cutting ants feed on a fungus which they cultivate has been confirmed by Mr. Fritz Müllar, who had arrived at it independently in Brazil. His observations on this and various other habits of insects are contained in a letter to Mr. Charles Darwin, published in Nature of June 11, 1874.

« EelmineJätka »