Friday, June 01, 2012

Hideaway in a green field

In mid-May, we had a spell of spring weather, sunny and warmish. In between re-planting lettuce and searching out the slugs that ate my seedlings, I took a couple of quick trips across the street to the vacant lot.

The usual spring influx of earth-moving machinery hasn't materialized so far this year, and the field is looking green and inviting.

One of the very few sites managed by Ma Nature in our area.

The alders along the creek at the back are now high enough to hide the houses across the street. Scotch broom provides the accent colour of this season, yellow. The reds and blues will be along soon. Assorted birds are chattering in the shade; I heard one call I didn't recognize, and a robin came out to look me over, then returned to his foraging on the soggy creek bed. Dragonflies and cabbage whites danced over the tops of the greenery and spiders sunned themselves on the rocks.

Buttercups and daisies are starting to bloom.

I flipped over a board at the edge of the creek, and exposed a nest of suddenly-frantic ants.

Hundreds of white, shiny larvae, bigger than the adult workers caring for them.

Ant larvae lie mostly on their backs, hardly moving. The head end is hooked.

Ant adults are like the stylish women of my grandmother's youth; their waists are too tightly constricted for good digestion, my grandmother's and her friends' with those tightly laced whalebone corsets (Nana, a teenager at the turn of the 20th century, boasted that she had an 18-inch waist; no wonder women had fainting spells!), the ants with a threadlike petiole that won't allow solid food to reach the digestive organs. Mature ants can only eat liquids.

The larvae are not so restricted, having no waists at all. So the worker ants bring them solid foodstuffs, which are pre-digested by the larvae, and harvested by the workers in liquid form. The system works, keeping the workers motivated, and the larvae well fed.

I took a few quick photos and carefully replaced the board exactly as I had found it. Three days later, out looking for dragonflies, I stopped to check whether I'd disturbed the colony too much and forced them all to move. No; they were still there, and doing well:

Most of the larvae have eaten their fill and spun themselves a cocoon.

On the underside of the board. The cocoons are larger than the larvae.

This was four days ago. I haven't been out to see them since, because it's raining most of the time, but the cocoons should be ready to hatch (eclose) in about three weeks, depending on the species and the temperature. I'll make sure to drop in on them around that time.


  1. You painted a lovely picture with words. I felt as though I was there. . Interesting to see those ant larvae and the cocoons they made.
    My lettuce is being eaten by slugs too..

  2. I love the way you described the ants.

    When the larvae/pupae are much larger than the workers they will become queens or possibly males.


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