Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Fighting ants fodder for writers

red ants
photo courtesy: Axel Rouvin

Ants, it seems, relish a good fight. If you take a moment to observe ants in nature, you will notice that battles between different species of ants are a common occurrence. Such hostile encounters within the ant world have inspired many a writer to take up pen and ink, or in modern times keyboard and screen, to capture the moment.

While he lived at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau witnessed ants in the woodpile engaged in less-than-friendly activities. Based on his observations, he wrote "The Battle of the Ants," an excerpt from "Walden." In his essay, Thoreau described the ants as "the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other." Thoreau was amazed at the tenacity of the battling ants and wrote, "It was evident that their battle-cry was 'Conquer or die.'"

Thoreau actually carried a hunk of bark with three of the battling ants into his house to observe the combatants under a microscope. Some of the fighters had lost antennae and legs. But that paled in comparison to the two severed heads of foes that still clung to the legs of one ant. Thoreau concluded, "I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war…" but compared it to "the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle."

The British entomologist George Ordish also captured the brutal nature of ant behavior. In his book "The Year of the Ant," Ordish follows the activities of a worker in a colony of wood ants from March through October. The book is about the life cycle of the ant colony. One aspect of the biology recounted is the ability of a newly mated queen of wood ants to displace the queen of another species of ant. This is not an easy task. First, the wood ant queen needs to get past the guards of the other ants. Then she needs to kill the reigning queen. This she does by decapitating the old queen. The insect version of "Off with her head!"

red ants on beetle
photo courtesy: Scientific American

Ants don't always direct their warlike activities to other ants. Many species of ants feed on other living things. The so-called warrior ants of South America and Africa are aptly named. These ants travel in dense masses, not unlike the organized columns of an army. Hence, they are often called army ants.

Many writers have captured tales of these ants. "Leningen Versus the Ants," by Carl Stephenson, was set in Brazil and was about an attempt to keep the warrior ants from overrunning a plantation, in what can best be called a man-versus-ant battle. Leningen and his workers employed all types of human technology, including moats, concrete and fire engines. The ants won, in case you were wondering how this battle ended.

In her 1931 book "The Astonishing Ant," Julie Closson Kenly cited the work of early ant researcher William Morton Wheeler as a primary source for her biological information. Kenly covered many aspects of ant biology, including a chapter on ant armies. She began the chapter with the line, "As the different races of men keep armies to do their fighting for them, so do the different races of ants."

Like Thoreau, Kenly recounted tales of heads of ants clamped to feelers of other ants. Kenly stated, "It would seem a great trial to spend the rest of my life with any one's skull gripped tight to the end of my nose, even if I hadn't liked the person."

The biology of ants, with their mechanical, militaristic and otherworld characteristics, lend themselves to science-fiction books. "The Ant Men" by Eric North is one such book, which is touted as a science fantasy novel.

E.O. Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard entomologist and ant specialist, uses ant behavior as a metaphor for human societies. In his first novel, the appropriately titled "Anthill," people are quite warlike. According to Wilson, "Ants are the most warlike of all creatures and most species." But compared to human wars, ant wars differ in one major aspect: Ants send their old women to war, while humans send their young men!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox