Alas! Alas! I realize that I drive from stranger to stranger and that, after explaining who we are, we, one of the great nations among the ants, I must now explain what is an expedition of cows. This explanation is all the more necessary, as there are cows and cows, and we know how to vary our resources by reducing in domesticity a much larger number of different animals than we have long suspected; therefore, each formic clan has its particular reasons for looking for one cow and neglecting another.
What good are intruders in the anthill? one can say. Can not you find more easily outside, and in a thousand different places, the product that you ask the animals confined to your home? This seems obvious, because the cows you captivate are born wild and live wild before suffering your seclusion.
To understand all this, it is essential to go down to our anthill and to attend the scenes of our family life. As for me, they are still very familiar to me, because not long ago, I can admit it, that I went out of page. Despite my size and the nickname that drew my exploits, it is not yet two years since I tore my first envelope in the arms of Polyergus who took care of me.
Oh! good nannies! what inexhaustible complacency you have shown to me! What patience you have lavished around often sullen and grumpy my childhood! How much do I feel today what you did for your younger brother!
It’s now that I know what it costs to care a nascent ant! And soon my turn will come to show the larvae born yesterday the same dedication that accompanied my first steps. This is the only way I have to express my gratitude.
The care that the workers give to the larvae consists not only in providing them with a suitable temperature and a suitable food, but different, according to the class to which they belong; many other concerns lie with us. First, we must maintain them in the most extreme cleanliness. The children are everywhere the same! … With our palps, we know how to clean them perfectly, and our larvae never have the smallest grain of dust on the body!
When the larvae are born, there is already a lot of work to do, because the care begins at the birth of the eggs. As soon as the female has laid, we workers take these eggs one by one and we take them to the spacious rooms reserved for them. We do not have to hatch them, far from it; but we have to keep them in a constant state of heat and humidity; it is much more difficult because we must take into account at every moment the variations that the day, the night, the sun, the rain, the wind produce around us. We could say that we make them undergo a real incubation in the open air. We often transport them, several times in a single day, from one floor to another in the house.
While we are caring for them, the eggs increase in volume in a notable way, we pass them from time to time between our mandibles and we thus cover them with a sweet liquid that we disgorge and which, absorbed by the egg, benefits the embryo that it contains. This care lasts at least fifteen days: the eggs are numerous and we have a lot of trouble! But the reward is not long in coming. The larva breaks the shell of its egg and leaves, transparent as a glass, but unable to move. It looks like the jerseys that men do with their kids and for which they have certainly modeled themselves on ants. In both cases, there is a head and segments of the body, but no vestige of legs, limbs or articulated appendages.
But the sun has just risen on our valley … Good luck for the ants! …
The slopes that form the enclosure of this valley, gilded by the light, shine, showing every detail of the houses scattered at their base, cutting each tree, each hedge that covers the heights. In the depths, calm and deep, a sea of thick white haze from which rises, from place to place, like an isolated rock, the head of a large tree.
Brrr! … how cold it is! … But, very slowly, as the heat increases, the mist oscillates and rolls in long, fleecy waves; it looks like a sea of white wool … little by little, insensibly, without being aware of it, it vanishes, becomes transparent and disappears, removed, invisible now, at the top of the air.
Ah! the beautiful thing that one morning! Hope and joy.
Little by little, the sun rises in the sky, the heat grows, the blood circulates in our members.
Come on, dark clouds that pass over the sun! … Go back, O whitish fog that paralyze the ants! … Be cursed! … Could not you water the earth without suspending everywhere these huge drops, real pitfalls stretched in front of each of our steps? Come, beautiful sun, our life to all; shine and bring us strength, strength and cheerfulness! …
All cold, I had landed on a rock near our anthill, and I was there in view of the sun, which dried me with its beneficial rays, when the voices of nature, as poets say, woke up around from me … Oh! I hate them, and I fear them, these voices of nature! … They present themselves to us in the form of birds, which pursue us almost all, and devour us in every circumstance! Now, I have thought a great deal about this, and I am convinced that God has certainly given these birds their piercing voice only to warn us. For example, the most terrible enemy of our race, the woodpecker, never leaves a tree without yapping in a voice that is heard throughout the countryside. This is the signal! … For us it means:
– Hide! It’s the woodpecker that goes to war! He leaves a tree to fly on another! …
Likewise the tit, also dangerous, though smaller. See him with her companions in a tree, among the bushes, constantly peeping, and as he never walks alone, we are warned in time by the good God, who wants all his creatures to live and prosper in this world ! Ah! I have noticed all this; and when I hear men say that birds are created to animate the countryside, I shrug my shoulders. One cannot be more naive than that! … All proves that the birds were created only to make the war against the ants!
My God! How many enemies have you aroused for us!
But time has come and, on the call of the chief superintendents, I hastily descend from my rock and go to join my comrades on the anthill.
In a few moments, all the exits are crowded with ants, which are pressing towards the outside; the larvae are brought at the same time by workers to be placed at the top of the anthill and feel the heat of the sun. Larvae of females, larger than males and neuters, are transported with greater difficulty through the narrow passages of the house. But we redouble our efforts, we get together, we always manage to pass them and deposit them with others in the appropriate place.
This work done, it is not forbidden for us to remain a few moments together in a group on the surface of the anthill, either to talk with the invalids and warm us like them in the sun, before they return to the infirmary, or to rest from the hard work we have just done. But our task is not over: we can not leave the larvae exposed to such direct heat for a long time. They must be removed and brought back to shallow lodges where sufficient heat is obtained. They are lowered as the sun rises. If the rain comes, we take them to the bottom of the house, in very dry cellars, where the temperature is constant.
When the moment to feed the hatched larvae has come, each adult ant approaches one of the news and gives him the food that suits to him. I am unfortunately not allowed to reveal here whether each nurse prepares a particular substance, as wasps and bees can do; all I can say is that these nurses disgorge the fluids which they prepare in their stomachs, and that they deposit young people in the mouth, by spreading the mandibles of these with theirs.
– What are these fluids? you will ask me. And again: where do the workers draw the material of this secretion? … And then? …
Frankly, we do not know ourselves. We are preparing, in a certain way, the food for each caste of larvae, according to a habit so natural to our organization that everyone in our country knows how to use it. It seems to me that the materials are supplied to our organs by the objects that serve us food. Now, there are few animals, I believe, more frankly omnivorous than the ant.
This quality makes it impossible to explain what my friends eat and do not eat, but it does not forbid us to reveal our preference. We like sugar and all that is sweet.
Poor ants we are! This innocent taste is often the cause of our loss! It is a great misfortune that man has the same taste; he prepares sugar to satisfy his passion; we are attracted … invincibly! And we die without murmuring, but not without defending ourselves.