Ant infestations are not necessarily a bad thing — especially for the bats that feed on them and rid us of other bothersome creatures like gnats, midges and mosquitoes.
by Richard Hoath
Ant is a very small word for an animal of immense significance. I actually prefer the Old English word for them, emmet or even better the evocative and ever so slightly rude-sounding pismire. Of an estimated 22,000 ant species, 2,500 classified species have been identified from Africa alone and no one really knows how many of these are found in Egypt. They are estimated to make up 15 to 25 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial biomass, a figure which is at once barely believable and humbling. Ants are everywhere except Antarctica, from deepest rainforest, to desert, to high mountains and darkest caves. And as of last week they were on my balcony in profusion. I had an emergence. I had an emergence of pismires.
Ants live in colonies ranging from small groups of barely dozens of individuals to vast insectian conurbations of many millions of individuals. It is a rigidly caste set society made up largely of workers but also soldiers, slaves and, in the case of honeypot ants, living larders, but the colony is ‘ruled’ by the queen, larger than her subjects and an egg-laying factory. Perhaps once a year, in a chemically orchestrated extravaganza, there is a mass hatching of sexually fertile females and males, new kings and queens, who emerge from the nest in untold numbers, winged and capable of flight to disperse, to mate and found new colonies. This is the emergence and my balcony was swarming with winged royalty ready to spread their genes. For most it would be an occasion to reach for the Raid and bathe the courting couples in a chemical smog. I did not, and if you experience such an event I would urge you to hold off too.
Witness the emergence and sweep up afterwards as once mated both potential kings and queens shed their wings.
Being so overwhelmingly numerous, ants form the cornerstone of many ecosystems. They can have extraordinarily complex lives. Some species farm aphids for their sweet honeydew or actively grow fungi in specially tended underground chambers. Some are highly aggressive, formidable with pincers so huge they are used as natural sutures for open wounds by some peoples. The army ants of tropical regions are infamous for their voracious appetites and other species defend themselves by squirting a toxic spray of formic acid at aggressors. Still, other species are slave-makers raiding the nests of other ants and bearing away the larvae to rear and use as slave workers in their own nests. Other species have developed extraordinarily complex relationships with butterfly species, such as Egypt’s Leopard and Arab Leopard of the genus Apharitis, whereby the butterfly caterpillar exudes a honey-like substance irresistible to ants and is taken by an ant to its colony where it feeds not on plant leaves but on the ant larvae. In short, ants are extraordinary. Just read Edward O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Ants or its more accessible 1994 follow-up Journey of the Ants to win you round.
My favorite ant story comes from a trip to northern Queensland, Australia in 2004. After exploring the coastal rainforests north of the Daintree River and finding such specialties as Southern Cassowary and Orange-footed Scrubfowl our guide Lara, an Ozzie Amazon with a heart of gold and a naturalist’s eye, shepherded us to a forest glade. There seemed to be little in the way of fauna around until she pointed out a busy column of ants streaming along the branches of the understory. She picked one off and asked me to lick it, a rather extraordinary request though large ants, especially the emerging royal couples, are a valuable source of protein in some parts of the world. I did so and it was actually quite pleasant! This was the Green Ant. The British naturalist William Saville Kent wrote in his 1897 book Naturalist in Australia that “beauty in the case of the green ant is more than skin deep. Their attractive almost sweetmeat-like translucency possibly invited the first essays at their consumption by the human species.” He went on to describe how the locals mashed up the ants in water “to form a pleasant, acid drink” — an entomological lemon squash as it were.
I did not go out licking the abdomen of the ants on my balcony but I spared them a chemical onslaught not because they were potential food for me but for a whole host of other species. At this time of year, millions of migratory birds will be passing through and many of them will be insect eaters like the warblers, flycatchers, chats and shrikes. These ants are invaluable fuel for their winter here or continuing journey south. Geckos, skinks, agamas and other things reptilian will feast as will predatory and beneficial insects such as dragonflies and damselflies, beetles and bugs. And so too will bats.
Bats get bad press as do many of the creatures vilified in last month’s Halloween festivities. Spiders, owls and black cats will have loomed large but bats probably even larger. There are all sorts of myths and misunderstandings about bats. They are meant to fly in our faces and get tangled in our hair but they don’t and if they do it is by accident and a failure of their oh-so-sophisticated sonar apparatus. They are meant to be blind — “as blind as a bat” goes the popular phrase — but they are not. All have functioning eyes and the Egyptian Fruit Bat, the largest species of bat in Egypt, has large doe-like eyes that function spectacularly well by night when our own optics are very substandard. That said most bats, and especially the small, insectivorous bats, rely far more on sound than sight to home in on their insect prey. They emit very high frequency bursts of ultra-sound through the mouth or nostrils and catch the rebounding waves with elaborate and very large ears much as a satellite dish might. This has evolved to such a level of sophistication that the bats’ nose in many species is an elaborate structure of nose-leaves, flaps and convolutions that while highly effective at channeling sound is, to human eyes, grotesque. This is especially so in the horseshoe bats.
Egypt has three, possibly four species of horseshoe bats — the Mediterranean, Lesser, Arabian and Mehely’s Horseshoe Bats. They are all very similar — relatively broadwinged and with the tail almost entirely enveloped by the flight membrane. They can only really be safely distinguished in the hand by close examination of the nose structure. This is highly complex. Unlike our rather dull and uncomplicated proboscis, it is made up of a variety of structures such as a protruding sella, the pointed lancet, the elaborate upper connecting process and its mirror the lower connecting process and the half moon of the fleshy horseshoe that gives the group its name. Not pretty but very, very effective. At rest, horseshoe bats are distinctive in that they hang from the roost with the wings wrapped tightly around the body. A fifth species, the Trident Leaf-nosed Bat, has a similarly extravagant conk with three fleshy extensions to the top of the noseleaf and a sixth, the Persian Leaf-nosed Bat, may occur here but is not confirmed. Though not true horseshoe bats, the nose structure of these two species makes them superficially similar.
Treasure these bats. It’s not their fault their wonderfully specialized and adapted facial features make them Halloween parodies. They gobble up the gnats, midges and mosquitoes that annoy, bite and sting. And spare the emerging ants — they fuel our bats.
Richard Hoath is a Senior Instructor at AUC’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. He has published extensively about Egypt’s wildlife and fauna.