“I am very interested in you,” I said to my friend Double-Spine; ”the more I go, the more I understand and appreciate what I heard from an old queen from home: The world belongs to the ants! …”
“Your old queen was right,” rejoined my neighbor, swaggering himself, “and we are, without contradiction, the first people of the earth, not only in numbers, but in intelligence and morals. How many do you know of nations, even among animals larger than ourselves, who have a simpler, better defined government, acting with so much ensembles and with so few gears?“
“The bees, maybe …“
“Ah! yes, always bees! But they are only a people enslaved to the soil. We live free while working, and without our inspectors …“
“Have you not seen them fulfilling their duties in rearguard, in the great army of Ecitons?”
“Oh, yes, I have noticed them very well. So you know others, in different species of Ecitons?“
“Certainly, I know … and we will not have to go far to see them. Since you are interested in the morals of our fellow-citizens, my dear fellow, I propose to go to some distance from here to visit the admirable works of the Saüba.“
“I accept, provided that there is no danger of being too curious.“
“No one, I affirm it to you; these ants take care of their business exclusively and do not quarrel with anyone … Maybe because their force makes them respected by all! Ah! it is a great people! probably the biggest in the world, for us … and for many others!“
“Let’s go, I’m ready!“
“No, neighbor, not today. We would not have time to visit their works, which are huge. We will not have too much, tomorrow, our whole day for it.“
“See you tomorrow, then!“
I hid in a dark corner, under roots, to spend a night without accident. Alas! I hardly slept. It was, as soon as darkness had invaded the virgin forest, a concert, or rather a scream of cries, of sounds to make the bravest tremble. Certainly, I am not a coward, and yet cries sometimes came so near my retreat, I heard the leaves so close to me, that fear kept me awake. In the morning, the noise ceased little by little; then, suddenly, without any transition, as in our beautiful France, the day came and the sun flooded the earth with its rays.
Double-Spine appeared, looking for me.
“Where are you from?“ I asked him.
“From my nest. Why are you asking me this question?“
I told him my adventure.
“Finally,” he said, laughing, “you have been left for a beautiful fear! All’s well that ends well. However, I do not advise you to expose yourself a second time, because the number of beings who attack us is enormous … You do not suspect it, and it is a true miracle that they did not find you. It must be believed that your smell is unknown to them and, consequently, foreign … It served you as a safeguard. However, you should not rely too much on it!“
“Be quiet, dear friend, I will not trust it anymore. Brrrou! … I’m cold in the back!“
“Let’s have lunch and leave, if you do not mind.“
“I do not ask for better“
We feasted with the delicious fruit that lay around us, and we set off.
Double-Spine was walking like a Basque, and I had a hard time following him in the midst of the obstacles that were blocking me at every step. His spines served him a lot by spreading herbs and twigs in his path. I understood then their high utility, in these thickets whose thickest woods of our Europe can not give an idea.
Finally, after having walked for a long time, we arrive at an immense clearing in the middle of which rises a kind of hill or dome of sixty centimeters in height, dying on all sides … More than one hundred and fifty heights of ant elevation! What a building! And what a people builds like it! As we approached, the ground became covered with ants, and it was an admirable movement around us. There were thousands and thousands of creatures teeming like in our anthills.
“Warning!“ said Double-Spine, “we are fortunate to witness the return of an expedition which, most likely, slept on the scene of his exploits. According to the direction of the column, I think it comes from one of the gardens of the suburbs, because we are not, here, very much in the forest.“
So I went up with him on a tree trunk and I saw a spectacle as extraordinary as unexplainable for me. Every ant – and they were a myriad! – walked bravely, holding in its mandibles, by the tail, a green leaf three or four centimeters in diameter!
These thousands of animated leaves, walking slowly and continuously, evenly, and hiding the ants that were below them and holding them above their heads like an umbrella, presented the most singular aspect that one could imagine . It looked like a huge shiny green carpet. I turned to Double-Spine to question him when he warned me.
“Such as you see these ants, they are so numerous that in certain parts of this country they drive out the inhabitants. No means is capable of driving them away or diverting them; you will understand it just now, when you have visited their fortress. At this moment, it seems obvious to me that they must have devastated a plantation of orange trees, each of which they bring back a leaf. Tomorrow they will attack a plantation of coffee trees, and nothing will be left; the trees, thus bare, see their vegetation necessarily stopped abruptly and, however fertile the country may be, they most often die.“
“And what do they do with these leaves?“
“My dear friend, they use it to cover the dome of their buildings and prevent parcels of earth from falling inside. What you see are the admirable ceilings that they carry away, in parts, to gather them together like scales by cutting them of suitable size.“
“So, they need a lot?“
“You will judge. According to my evaluations, I believe that the hill or dome that occupies the middle of the clearing is twelve to thirteen meters in diameter.“
“I repeat: more than a dozen meters in diameter, and you have estimated its height to sixty centimeters. Admit, you who know men, that their most powerful efforts in building are really very insignificant if you compare them to the size of the architects.“
“It’s true, but how are these doing?“
“Ah! young stranger, that’s the big secret! Everything comes from the division of labor, erected into law that no one transgresses! These warriors, whom you see passing and who have just collected and looked for the leaves, will not place them, they will content themselves with throwing them on the ground, leaving to relays of special workers the care to place them in a suitable order. They seize them, arrange them, then another squad comes to cover them with small balls of earth, and that so quickly, that in a very short time the leaves are hidden under this place and firmly attached.“
“This construction reminds me of the Termites.“
“With this capital difference, that the work is reverse …“
“What do you mean?“
“No doubt, the Termites are building much more on the ground than digging. The Saüba, on the contrary, is digging a lot more than building. What you see here is a very small part of the enormous work that has been done below … You will visit them.“
“How do we call this ant in learned language?“
Often, in vulgar language, it is given the name of parasol ant. In patois of the savages of the country, one says Coustrie. The population of each phalanstery is divided into three perfectly distinct castes of inhabitants: the Winged, the Big Heads, or soldiers, as they are often called, and the ordinary workers. In my opinion, the Big Heads must still be subdivided into two classes: the Soft Heads and the Rude Heads; the first wearing a horny helmet, transparent, polished, while the heads of the latter are opaque and covered with hair.
“What are these Big Heads doing? …“
“Never they work ostensibly. They watch the workers, especially the Polished Heads, who do nothing by themselves and walk around the others.“
“They are soldiers, just like at the Termites,” I said, “I know that!“
“My dear friend, you know nothing at all. They do not even have a sting. Even more, if you tease them, they do not seem to care or notice.“
“It is not possible!…“
“This is so. But there is still more and better, because the variety of the Polished Heads certainly has a job even more difficult to guess. Here is what I saw. If we cut, as I have seen some explorers, some time ago, the head of one of these mounds we see freshly built covered with a blanket of leaves that we know, we would find, below, a large cylindrical well extending more than sixty centimeters deep. If we put in a stick of at least five feet, we will be able to enter the side galleries without meeting the end; but then, the demonstrations of the inhabitants will decide. A number of colossal individuals arrive slowly along the polished walls of the well. They are Rude Heads. Their foreheads are covered with hair, they have, in the middle, a small eyespot or simple eye quite different, like structure, of ordinary compound eyes that we all wear on both sides of our head.“
“I have never seen anything like this.“
“I think so. Not only does this frontal eye not exist among the other Saüba workers, but it is not found in any other known species of ant! Nothing is more striking, as a spectacle, than to see these strange creatures emerging slowly, like ghosts, from the darkness of the well, and appearing in the day like the Cyclops of the Homeric fable.“
“Plague! Double-Spine, my friend, but you are well-versed!“
“Do not mind! I was raised at the college of the Jesuit Fathers of Para, and I have become a countryman only by a series of misfortunes whose oddness equals the intensity!“
“I pity you much. Yes, a lot! but … our Big Heads …“
“Your frizzy Big Heads have this inexplicable to me, that can be seen only in the circumstances I have just told you. What can be their special functions? They never go out. Are they meant to be the queen’s bodyguards? Is it, in more modest employment, simple sergeants of the city? supervisors of public roads? Everything is possible with such an advanced people! We should not believe, poor French ant, that the streets or underground galleries of our American peoples resemble the molehills you build! They are so vast, here they are so complicated, that the explorers of whom I have spoken to you, and whose works I have followed out of curiosity, have given up on exploring them completely. They would have used their life!“
“Are you kidding? …“
“So little, that I saw them blow sulfur smoke into an anthill similar to this one, and follow the smoke coming out seventy yards away.“
“Why are attacked the poor animals?“
“Because they were guilty of considerable damage by piercing the containment of large tanks and thus drained all the water before the damage could be conjured.“
“Do you know, dear Double-Spine, how are the winged Saüba?“
“Yes, but you will not see them now. They only come out of the anthill in January and February. They are quite different from the workers and the soldiers; their round body makes them look very much like bees; their color is darker. They leave by legions of the anthill and, among this legion, only a few individuals survive at the end of the day, because the birds of the neighborhood have made an appointment to attack and devour the members of this winged colony, as well as all insectivorous animals of the country. The females are besides very big insects, who have well three centimeters open wings; the males are smaller.
“As for the mother-female, the Queen, if you like, she looks a lot like a queen of Termites. You will not be able to see it, my dear, because it never leaves its hut inside, the best defended of the anthill, and it is not easy to find it. However, I saw it, in the upheaval that I witnessed, because the pests have sought her and finally discovered her. She remains, even after the loss of its wings, of much the biggest one of the colony.
“Those who survive the general massacre of the Winged are preparing themselves to found a new colony; they always succeed, for a certain number; and they are so prolific that, in spite of the enormous destruction which has struck individual winged, those to whom only the task of reproduction is divided, they drive man out of his possessions, and he is absolutely unable to conquer these terrible enemies, who undermine and destroy his labors!“