Periodically, Green Tree Ants, Oecophylla Smaragdina, a species endemic to Australia, cause a problem in our garden. Being a gardener, I am frequently out amongst the dense foliage pruning or raking and spot their nests, sometimes quite large, and often swarming with ants. Green Tree Ant workers are aggressive and defend their nests by swarming onto the ‘attacker’. They cannot sting but bite with their jaws and squirt a burning fluid, formic acid, from the tip of the abdomen onto the ‘wound’. Many an innocent brushing against a bush or tree, has found themselves covered in ants. Then follows the inimitable green- tree -ant- dance, hopping up and down on the spot, arms flailing, slapping at ants to brush them off. It’s a sight to behold. The phrase ‘she’s got ants in her pants’ comes to my mind and gives me cause to giggle because the ‘dance’ looks exactly so! The word ‘antsy’ (agitated, impatient, restless according to the Oxford Dictionary) similarly makes an appearance in my brain.
I have been prey to this onslaught many times, usually with a small number of ants though occasionally, and most unpleasantly, far more. Over time, I have adapted to these little creatures, at close-range, reminiscent of some weird spacecraft or robot. It is curious how ancient evolutionary creatures which evolved 140-168 million years ago, have inspired sci-fi, futuristic imagery.
As with all else in nature, I am reluctant to dispose of them, polite for ‘kill’ them. I am one to remove rather than kill spiders, moths and so on from the house, scooping them carefully into a container, lid quickly clapped on, and releasing them outside; and to rescue lizards, skinks and bees from the pool in a similar manner. I usually talk to them in the process…there you go, you’re OK now you little thing – you know the kind of sentiment I am engaging in, heartfelt, perhaps a touch of the Buddhist in me – as it scurries a small distance across the terracotta tiles, stops, remains there for minutes just staring at me, its saviour.
Cane toads, which in warmer months are prevalent in the pool, around the compost bin and other parts of the garden, are considerably more challenging. Allow me to digress, as is my wont. The cane toad, Bufo Marinus, indigenous to Central and South America, was introduced to Australia prior to the use of agricultural chemicals in the 1930’s as an attempt to control a beetle which infests sugar cane crops. The control failed and we are now left with huge numbers of these rather grotesque-looking creatures making their way from the far north westward across the top end and down the east coast of Australia at an ever-increasing rate of forty-sixty km per annum. It would take another brothers Grimm fairy-tale to transform this feller into a handsome prince, or even a handsome frog! They are present in large numbers in the warm months and emit a poison toxic enough to kill frogs, quolls, snakes, goannas, and even crocodiles! And dogs! But the lovely native Green Tree Frogs we have here are diminishing partly due to their presence and we are advised to attempt to rid ourselves of the toads. And hence another dilemma – how to do so humanely. Jon, who has had a bit of a relationship with Buddhism, when confronted with cane toads, becomes a murderous killer. I will save you from a description of his methodology! I have re-read the latest about humane disposing of cane toads which involves a two-part process. Firstly, captured and encapsulated in a plastic bag, place them in the fridge which puts them to sleep (this is the step of which I was previously unaware, and which makes all the difference), then into the freezer for a few days, job done! Fortunately, we have a small second fridge downstairs. I must again try to convince the man that this is the way to go. You just remove the toad from the pool, and I will do the rest, I offer.
Even snakes, which of course are present in the tropics in our dense garden, warrant and are granted the same respect by me. They are more afraid of me than I of them and will quickly retreat. If non-toxic, snakes are quite harmless, enjoying their exploration through the trees, sometimes leaving their beautiful, shed skin as testament to their presence, or slithering invisibly along the ground amongst the foliage. Jon, being from Michigan, USA, is culturally unaccustomed to snakes, and instinctively wishes them dead. But I can’t condone this unless it is a dangerous snake close to the house in which case removal by some means is necessary though not to be tackled by the inexperienced!
Digression over, I return to the Green Tree Ant. About a centimetre length and quite obviously of green body and honey-coloured legs, they create nesting chambers, a sophisticated structure of leaves bound together to form a compacted cluster. Leaves are bound with silk pulled together through the cooperation of many worker ants carrying silk- producing larvae. The ants move to and fro, binding the seams of the leaf nest with precision, the other workers patiently holding the leaves in place. The ants form a dangling chain, hundreds clinging to one another. Once leaves are positioned, another wave of workers appear with young grub-like larvae in their jaws. The entire construction may take several hours to complete.
Although the colonies have a single queen, they may ultimately expand to have many nest sites throughout a single tree, or even adjacent trees, which the ants travel between. These super colonies can contain tens of thousands of ants, and the various nest sites will have different functions. Some may store larvae and pupae of different ages, others will simply house workers, and of course one will house the queen and will be fiercely protected. The ants tend to prefer living leaves to form their nest chambers. As the leaf clusters die off, the ants will scout for a new location and repeat the construction process.
Nest building is not the only unique talent of these high-rise ants. If there is a particular branch below them that they need to reach, rather than walking the long way round they can construct bridges and ladders using their own bodies to span the gap with incredible cooperation. Once they reach the branch below, other ants will use the living structure to walk across. Of course, the structure is not permanent, but allows effective temporary access to a spot otherwise difficult to get to. These remarkable ants have also taken to a form of insect farming. They actively protect and tend to several species of caterpillars, various leaf hoppers and other sap sucking insects. The ants are in turn rewarded with sugary secretions, known as honeydew, produced by the farmed insects. This is a rich food source. Traditionally, green tree ants have many medicinal uses and are still widely used by indigenous Australians as a remedy for coughs and colds. Studies have shown that the ants’ abdomen is high in vitamin C and protein. They are either eaten alive, crushed and inhaled like vapour-rub to open the sinus, or taken as a drink. Mothers with infants rub green ants on their breasts to make the milk flow, and many believe that, taken in high concentrations, they act as a contraceptive. As I research more about these little insects, my admiration grows which lends weight to my disquiet.
Every couple of years we employ a tree pruner for trees too tall for us to manage. Last time, as he progressed with a towering yellow-flowering shrub which he tackled from the empty paddock next to ours, he was suddenly ‘doing the dance’. There he was, jumping around on the spot, vigorously swatting at various parts of his body, flicking ants hither and thither to the accompaniment of a liberal smattering of pejoratives…faark, faark etc. He was covered with the little blighters whose bite is quite unpleasant though not long-lasting and definitely more than unpleasant if numerous, as was the case. Afterwards, the poor guy suggested that before we next call him, we rid our garden of these green tree ants. He recommended a poison (unfortunately, but it works). Just a few drops, mix it in with a bit of pilchards or tinned tuna or something similar and stick it up in the trees, he advised.
Reluctant as I am to us poison, and knowing it would be a long time before he returned, I delayed this task deciding on an interim, short-term solution if required. So, a few weeks ago, a substantial number of green ants appeared on our balcony railings and deck, and it seemed action was required. I take out the trusty Mortein insect spray (still poisonous but much more ‘domestic’ and certainly quick and easy) and spray around the railings, pshtt phstt, targeted specifically. Ants drop to the ground. As I look closely, the occasional one is still moving, clearly in their death throes. And suddenly I can’t bear it. All god’s creatures etc, every living thing deserves a humane death, so I snuff them out with my thumb – a merciful quick death is the way to go if you’ve got to kill. Go to god, I say, a small personal joke I share with myself whenever I kill something. Well not so much a joke, rather, a moment of reverence acknowledging my discomfort at killing. We are all part of the natural world. Even ants deserve respect.
Go to god – the back-story. Many years ago, a friend Marion was dying of cancer. I saw a lot of her in the last months of her life and it was from her that I first heard this utterance as she swatted a fly. Go to god, she proclaimed. I thought it so generous and touching that in the light of her personal journey she still cared for tiny creatures. But it also amused me as neither of us were believers. I commented at the time and we had a good laugh. Thereafter and evermore, I adopted the phrase, and the memory of Marion lives on with every swat of an insect!
I am also reminded of the Jain religion in India. Jainism is the smallest of India’s six religions, comprised of 0.4% of the population, and shares much in common with Buddhism. Non-violence is one of the basic tenets of their religion, carried to interesting ‘extremes’. In Jain temples in Rajasthan, I have observed monks sweeping the ground before them in order not to inadvertently trample ants. Jains are vegetarians but do not eat root vegetables as this is seen as a form of violence, because consuming the root destroys the plant. Jain monks cover their nose and mouth with a cloth to prevent micro-organisms in the air from entering and being killed. How extraordinary and thrilling is the diversity on our planet of people and their belief systems.
So here I am, no Jain, crushing the poor innocent ants. I anticipate the lemony scent, which surprisingly isn’t forthcoming. Green ants are citrus flavoured and widely used in indigenous cooking. In more recent times, green ants as with other bush tucker (Ozzie slang for bush food), are gaining momentum in culinary circles, with growing interest from influential Australian and international chefs as both garnish and key ingredient, exemplified by green ant cheese and boutique gin brands. I can attest to the favourable flavour, having tested it by licking my fingers after crushing an ant. It is not at all repugnant, in fact delicious, but killing them and observing their death throes is repugnant. As I look upon the painted deck where they lie scattered, they seem like so many fallen petals, like the white wind-blown Begonia blossoms carpeting a patch nearby. I feel as though I have committed genocide! Even killing ants does not come easy.
But now, some weeks later again, it is time to get serious; they are everywhere all over the garden. It is impossible to work and not be confronted by nests just waiting to be brushed against. I have been bitten once too often for the season. So, I discuss it with my friend Paul who buys the appropriate and very expensive poison in larger quantities as he runs a caravan park which must be green-ant free for the customers, or ‘punters’ as his wife, my friend Roz, refers to them. Can I buy a bit from you, I ask, and a few pilchards? They have a ready supply of ‘pillies’, fish bait for the ‘punters’. I devise a simple way to contain the mix which must be hung amongst the foliage where ants are visible. I will use the small black plastic doggy poo bags found along the foreshore provided by our local Council to encourage responsible dog management. (Who, after all, wants to go for a delightful walk along the beach or foreshore only to step into fresh dog poo?). They will be perfect as I can simply tie the looped handle around branches, securing it tightly.
So, as instructed, well gloved up, I rub a few drops of the poison on each pilchard, place one in each of six bags and secure them to trees throughout the garden. And voilà. Within a day or two not an ant to be seen…nor weeks later. But, in the meantime, having read and learned so much more about these little creatures and their amazing behaviors and purpose within the scheme of nature, in addition to gaining admiration for them, I am also further confronted by my genocidal action against them! It’s good, however, to be morally wide-awake, as even though one cannot always avoid difficult paths of action, we are surrounded by more than sufficient moral bankruptcy.
And so to titling this piece. I am searching my imagination. From working title Green Ants, what can I come up with? Titling, as with my artwork, is tricky and important. It is the handle onto which the viewer or reader must grab. Last night I was reading an article in the New York Review of Books about Walter Sickert, the English artist, 1860-1942, who moved through Realism, his version of Impressionism and on to champion the Avant Garde. He influenced such luminaries as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon and challenged the conventional approach to painting the nude. Instead, he painted provocative scenes of urban culture and common people including prostitutes, preferring the ‘kitchen to the drawing room’.(I was hoping to include more images of their work but found it difficult to access). Undoubtedly an oversimplification, his oeuvre was described as dealing with Sex and Death (like M.O.N.A, Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart) and there it was, my title unfolding…sex and death/ insects and death/ insex and death!