But it’s time, I think, to talk a little about myself.
I am tall, I am strong, I am brave, I am beautiful! My limbs, elegantly and firmly attached, have the firmness of steel, of which they borrow the golden color; my waist is slender, my chest wide, my eyes bright and my claws great.
All these advantages are summed up in the nickname of Hercules that, in a common voice, a whole clan gave me.
The Reddish Polyergus, the most powerful ants of France by their courage in the fighting, form a people composed of four orders of citizens: males, females, neutrals or warriors … and slaves, workers conquered on suitable species.
I am neutral, and I am proud of it.
Is there a life more noble, more chivalrous than mine: to fight, to conquer or to die!
The males pity me, despite their graceful wings. How! They live more than four months to fly away one fine evening and die at break of day! Fi! … We, we live for years, and all this time we spend it to serve the country and the nation, to contribute to its greatness, to its power; to make us serve as kings … and enjoy the sun!
The useful females have a terrible fate … terrible! … How much I consider them much more unfortunate than us, despite the wings of which their body is equipped at a young age! And yet it is certain that at least once in their life the path of air is open to them, while we, we will always remain attached to the floor of the cows! …
It is at the moment when they become adults, these useful females, that they dash in the spaces; there they meet the whirling males … and fall back on the earth … to which, from now on, they will always belong. More crazy races in the middle of the foliage, no more fantastic dance at the edge of the water! They fall … and their wings too! Unless we, or workers who are attentive to their search, get rid of them, by cutting them, of these organs which they do not need anymore.
If, fortunately, this female has been found by us, she is carried into our anthill and remains there forever imprisoned, busy laying eggs night and day, from morning to night, from evening to morning! … Is it live, that? … No! A thousand times no! … Long live the beautiful sun, the great air, the battles and the freedom! …
If a poor female falls alone, isolated, in a corner, the immense task of founding a new colony falls to her. So, what pains! What care! It is a giant work that only this female will create. She will meet a crack in the earth, a natural cavity: she will snuggle in it, then, isolated, given up to her urgent work – for she must be, to herself, her slave! – he will dig a cell for the first eggs that she will lay. Then, she has to look after these few larvae alone and bring them to adulthood, the first soldiers who will help her or accompany her…
If she does not succeed, isolated as she is, death comes to seize her, without help! How many die so! Without this, the Polyergus would invade the land!
Poor mothers! I am neutral and I thank heaven every day!
Shall I speak now of my character? Why not? Is it forbidden to be active, alert, to love the new, to never rest, to roam constantly? … But no, this is own to the researchers and great observers. This is how I got to know the manners of the tribes close to ours, on the edge of the moor. Because there are ants of many kinds, as there are many colors. There are even very intelligent ones. Thus, we should not believe that these poor black ashy ants, which we have so well plundered last time, are devoid of spirit. No! They have a lot of skill and talent: I would be almost willing to grant that they have more than us … while noting that it is their job! Their dwelling is very well made; they raise not only floor to floor, but dig as much as is needed one below the other. I see them renew this work with us; once a floor has been dug, they cover it with a vault of soft, moist clay, which, hardening, becomes the floor of the upper stage. The only thing they need is moisture to knead their soil: the dry weather absolutely prevents any work.
I’m strong, it’s true, it’s not for nothing that they call me Hercules. However, I am really surprised at the strength of these little creatures. When I hear men boast of their skill, their strength, I laugh … If a human being, even with all his tools, could accomplish in one day what a simple ant completes without tools, it would be the astonishment of the world!
Here’s what I saw an ant doing:
It begins by opening and digging a ditch in the ground, about six to seven millimeters deep, kneading the earth it removes in small balls that it places on each side of the ditch, so as to form a kind of wall. The inside of the ditch is made perfectly smooth and polished, so that once finished it looks like a real railway trench. But that’s not all; the ant, looking around her, saw that there was still another side of the house to which a road should be built, and immediately she began to work on a second path similar to the first, parallel to him, and separated them one from the other by a simple wall which was eight to nine millimeters high.
These were my thoughts and my studies in traversing the surroundings of our moor. I arrived at a colony of brown ants (Formica brunea) and, my faith! I fell into a real admiration as I watched them working. Our slaves are not yet of this force, and I intend to propose, at the next general assembly of the nation, to push an expedition towards these women workers and to replace them to our former slaves. Of course, we will win, and it is not more difficult, I suppose, to carry off one than the other.
I had never seen this ant working, because I always passed by there in the middle of the day; but this time, evening came, I had lost a lot of time examining the ashy browns, a slight mist fell, I was surprised to see such an animation in an anthill that had hitherto seemed to me pretty much abandoned.
This is how I learned that the sunlight, which we love so much, we other, inconvenient these owls. Too much rain does not please them either, because it damages their learned and complicated constructions. Would one believe that their house is often more than forty floors high? O man! Where are you at? You who, with the cellars, can not raise ten! … And who still do not know how to do them only horizontally, while our architects build them inclined. And they hold! And they are solid, healthy, dry! …
These floors, however, are not divided into regular cells like the cakes of bees, wasps and hornets; they are formed of chambers and galleries of quite irregular shapes and dimensions, admirably polished inside, and about half a centimeter high. The walls are a little over a millimeter thick. Now, what is the purpose of these numerous subdivisions? This is to regulate the heat and humidity throughout the building, in view of the hatching of the larvae. If, for example, the sun, like today, has not been very ardent, and if the instinct of these brave little people – for they are so small to us! – warns them that the larvae need heat, well! they take them to the rooms on the upper floor: the heat is stronger than below. Similarly, if there is a heavy rain that runs in the basement, nothing is easier than to be carried, the larvae also, in the series of superior rooms, where everyone is safe of the flood.
In the summer days when the sun is particularly hot, the Brunettes ensure a very suitable temperature by bringing their young broods to the central chambers, while if they need moisture, they are sure to find as much as it is necessary in the lowest parts, where the heat never penetrates. This moisture reserve is of the greatest importance; they could not build anything during the drought, which sometimes lasts a long time, if they did not have in the cellars this reserve, where they find enough clay for their average work of each day.
As for the mode of construction of our cousins, I have no doubt that it was on him that men took the model to learn how to build bricks. Only, as they are too clumsy to know how to cement balls like the ones they use with their saliva, they have imagined kneading square bricks, so that they can pile up themselves, and stick them with cement or an artificial mortar. Alas! Everything diminishes and shrinks by imitation.
The brown ants are so good at making these clay pellets, that one could look at this manufacture as their normal occupation. The bricks serve not only to raise the walls, plating them with the front feet, but also to build the vaults or ceilings. It seems a difficult work, almost impossible without scaffolding: men would not do it! But the Browns build vaulted ceilings five centimeters in diameter, with absolute certainty.
What proves that we are the most skilled builders in the world is that we know how to take advantage of everything. When a man wants to build a house, he makes a hole and raises in his anthill, with new materials. We use all that is at hand: one, two, ten beams are used; the slope of the ground is used to draw water, what do I know? everything serves our skilled architects.
On my way back, under the last rays of the sun, I passed a colony of ants whose color was close to ours. They were yellow ants (Formica flava), which seemed to me to be excellent miners too. The anthill, scarcely visible outside, was sinking under an enormous stone, and I was not a little surprised to see that this species was sociable. What a strange idea, as if we were not much better alone at home!
Not at all! Next to the Yellow, I recognized the nest of the Myrmica scabrinodis, a beautiful ant that was not so familiar to me as the other.
I wanted to approach her, especially since I had thought I saw, in one of the rooms, by the door of an avenue, a shiny brown animal, covered with a carapace, and that two ants seemed to cure, as we our larvae in education …
But as I was too close, no doubt, of fortifications, a dozen ants came to meet me, threateningly, and opened the mandibles with big arms … As I’m not afraid I set myself on a rock and put myself on the defensive; but these madmen, who had arrived a few steps away, turned to me and, through their abdomen, sent me a plume of acid, a corrosive rain … A few drops alone reached me, but burned me so much that, without trying to fight back putting them within reach of my mandibles, which would cut them in two, I got the hell out of there… and run again!
A pestilence on these artillerymen of wildfire!…
(Translated from Les aventures d’une fourmi rouge et les mémoires d’un pierrot, by Henri de la Blanchère)