A little ant city reconfigures and goes to war

With a weak economy, the PRD government pumped money into local governments — by and large the corregimientos, not the municipios — to put people to work on public construction projects. Like paving our dirt street. Without proper study — there allegedly was a “public hearing” about which the people who live here were not informed. Nor were the residents’ the economic means or lifestyles considered. AND…? Interesting question, who would be the main beneficiaries. ESPECIALLY as there has been land grabbing in the area.

A village lane atop an insect city

photo essay by Eric Jackson

See, people aren’t the majority of residents in this corner of El Bajito. We MIGHT be outnumbered by dogs, cats or chickens. But humans and domesticated animals are vastly outnumbered by insects.

What? This little anthill just across the fence in the neighbors’ yard? It’s only one entrance to a vast ant city.

We might talk about comparative ecology — the neighbors slash and burn and sometimes spray herbicides, while I let my jungle grow until I can’t stand it anymore, and where the vegetation is cut I leave it to decompose and build the soil.

One upshot is that my tiny non-commercial farm produces much more food than theirs does. “Limpiar,” to clean but in Panamanian Spanish also to clear a lot by cutting, spraying or otherwise killing and curtailing the living things upon it, makes a lot more ant-friendly. What appears unkempt by many cultural lights has more organic soil that’s full of microbes that leaf-cutter ants don’t like, so makes for a less attractive nesting area for them.

But the more organic, less-well-groomed farm that produces more food for people to eat — doesn’t that food production attract hungry ants?

In an indirect way that might be said to be the case, but leaf-cutter ants are farmers, not scavengers like the army ants. They strip the leaves off of a garden and carry it into underground chambers where they use it as substrate upon which to grow fungus, on which they and their young feed.

Fulita supervises the compacting of rock, gravel and sand — and ultimately an asphalt aggregate — on what had been an unpaved red clay street. When they got down to the asphalt part, she went out into that and got it all over her, making a mess of her paws, her fur, the house and apparently her health. She and the steamroller are more or less in front of my gate.

Compact and cover the street? That was a good way to close many of the entrance holes to this subterranean ant city that not only crosses my lot line with the neighbors, but also the street itself. On the other side of the street there are and were anthills and little holes in the ground that lead to the same big complex of ant chambers

These insect cities go deep, and they go wide, far enough to cross a one-lane street. Crush their top layers and close off not only some of their entrances but also some of their air passages? They’ll build around those problems. Including by moving one of their entrances into the palm and chaya hedge in front of my house.

It’s easier to spot the little bits of vegetation going down into this new entrance a few feet from my gate. In fact, the way I spotted this inconspicuous portal concealed in my front hedge was to follow the bits of leaf that were being stripped from my saril bushes and being carried off.

What to do about leaf cutter ants?

A few years back Panama’s IDIAP agricultural research institute was promoting the cultivation of a vining plant, the leaves of which the ants would cut into pieces and incorporate into their underground fungus farms. Those leaves were said to be toxic to the fungi, the killing off the essential food crop and forcing those ants who survived the ensuing famine to move somewhere else.

Moving leaf-cutter ants to somewhere that the create less annoyance, that’s the better option than an attempt to exterminate them altogether. Are you going to burn or poison an area that big? Would you expect to then plant fruit trees there and not get the fruit of a poisoned tree?

Then consider the ecological tradeoffs, which I would expect that some scientists at the Panama-based Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute have done in far more depth and detail than I have, with a much better educational background than I bring to bear.

Are these hive insects carbon positive, negative or neutral? If they strip the leaves from a plant that absorbs carbon dioxide, do the add to global warming? When they deposit those bits of leaves into their underground chambers to compost into fungus substrate, does that also emit carbon into the atmosphere? But then, aren’t they taking carbon-based plant material and burying it in the ground? In my neighborhood, aren’t they enriching relatively infertile red clay and over the long haul building more organic, more fertile soil in which things can be grown once their colony has moved on?

Such are the philosophical ponderings. But when I do my morning garden inspection and see that the leaf cutters are raiding, the thoughts rapidly move from the ecologically correct to more emotional Symbionese Liberation Army slogans. Death to the Fascist Insects!

They’re not so fascinating anymore when they strip my saril bushes.

Nuclear war? Not a practical option, considering that insects resist radioactive death better than people do. Stomping on them, crushing them one or two at a time? That’s a good way to get your feet swarmed over and multiply stung.

Did any of the comic book heroes of my youth ever confront such a thing? Naaah — Superman and Green Lantern only dealt with broad powers, never the fine point of global balances. But the comic books of my young adulthood? Consider the second part of Hydrogen Bomb and Biochemical Warfare Funnies. It’s beyond my budget to go setting off any big explosions, let alone cleaning up the mess. But CHEMICAL WARFARE! That’s the ticket.

EAT HORMITOX DEATH, FASCIST INSECTS! And that they did. Or some of them died and the others moved away.



Contact us by email at fund4thepanamanews@gmail.com

To fend off hackers, organized trolls and other online vandalism, our website comments feature is switched off. Instead, come to our Facebook page to join in the discussion.

These links are interactive — click on the boxes