Safari Ants Rule!

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Safari ants are a force to reckoned with, but best to be left alone.

Submitted: October 12, 2016

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Submitted: October 12, 2016

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The text books say that the best way to achieve even germination with Acacia is to soak the seed in boiling water. I found it quicker to chip or nick the seed coat using fingernail nippers and then sow them directly into pots, but at Sanawari, my nemesis were the big, brown slugs! They would dig out the seed and suck out all the goodness from where we had chipped it. The slimy buggers were about ten centimeters long, and if their slime got onto clothing, it was near impossible to wash out!

My response was each morning, bright and early, I would go out into the nursery and hunt down the slugs, killing them by cutting them in half with my pocketknife. Half an hours hunting I would bag perhaps twenty! Dirty work, but essential. I used put the half-slugs in the path of safari ants or just watch as a safari ant scout sensed the slug meat and she would rush off to tell her buddies. The collective would then set up a chain to butcher the slug and carry the pieces off to their temporary nest, they are always temporary.

Safari ants are so called because the travel a lot. They have to move on after they exhaust their food source wherever they happen to be. They carry off with them their brood and their big, fat queen. They are basically meat eaters, mainly insects, but they eat carrion and even avocados – it’s the fat you see - otherwise they don’t eat vegetable matter. Countless times we found them in and over our milk-cooling jug, swarms of them getting into the cream that settled on top of milk. There is the urban myth that they actually can kill and devour people, say, if they are drunk and fall over or otherwise become disabled!

The large, winged queen is very well protected, and is the heart of the colony. The workers, females, are smallish and very active, while the soldiers are larger, sterile males with bigger heads and powerful nippers!

As the centimeter or so wide column travels along, the soldiers stand guard with their bums toward the column and their nippers upwards waiting for a potential attack. Put your finger there and en mass they will take hold of it!  They are fierce and are painful!

To see what would happen, I have put sticks or stones across their path and they inspect it to judge if the obstruction is possible to shift or if it is best to go around it. Workers and soldiers will try hard to shift obstructions out of the way.

When I first cleared the nursery site at Makumira, I must have disturbed the whole colony because a short time after, the whole area was a seething mass of safari ants [locally called siafu, a term I prefer]. The mass was ten or fifteen centimeters deep and over around forty square metres – there must have been millions of them! If someone, even a fit person fell in there and I have no doubt they would be dead!

The march of siafu is much like Roman Legions, carrying their food with them and I have seen a column pass through the nursery unbroken all day, which shows the immense numbers that there were. I once watched a bunch of them carry their queen onto a tight hole-cum-chamber. They must have some way of knowing that she would fit, so they gently manoeuvered her, and after several trial attempts and finally succeeded. Probably they had already excavated the area for a temporary nest.

We learned to live with siafu, as from time to time, they passed right through our house. In through the door usually out through a hole in the wall or floor. We left them alone because there was nothing to fear from them as long as you left them alone, and they weren’t at all dirty.

We put our milk out to cool after boiling, and if I forgot to cover it, the siafu, attracted to the fatty cream on top, would cover the bench and the jug with a writhing, black body of siafu and of course the milk was unsalvageable! On the odd occasion they became trapped in the bath, so I left a stick for them to climb up.

The village people didn’t like them at all and had a few remedies that mostly didn’t work, the most effective was using a barrier of kerosene, but most could not afford the waste. We kept a spray can of Doom insect repellant, better termed, death dispenser, because it was pure poison!  Made in Australia, we only used the stuff on renegade mosquitoes. Anyway, I admired siafu and found it best to leave them alone where possible, because they persist anyway.

I was conducting an environmental seminar at a village church and I felt a sharp pain in my crutch! No, not quite there! Although I didn’t feel it crawling up my leg, I knew it was a siafu, and I knew it would not let go in a hurry! I made a quick comment to Loti and then charged off down the path to the toilet where I extracted the beast! There was general mirth when I returned because Loti told them what I was doing and all the attendees had experienced siafu bites in tender places. Siafu actually starred in our environmental seminars because of their role in the water cycle. Rainwater percolates through their chambers to deliver water to the subsoil. They are good mates of the environment!

We don’t have anything like them in New Zealand so I spent a lot of time studying them and carrying out small experiments, such as checking what food they favoured. Whenever I saw a column of them or saw scouts, I would catch an insect or slug and place it nearby to see how long it took to be found. The scout would run to it, check its size and run off to call mates to help. If I put something bigger down, soldiers would arrive with their big clippers and help to chop it into manageable sizes and they were remarkably quick.

Termites have basically the same family structure as siafu, but they are domiciled in their mounds. Unlike siafu, termites [mchwa] are quite destructive and their soldiers are just as aggressive as siafu. I have dug into mounds to use the soil material as brick mortar and the soldiers loudly rattle their nippers at invaders and are up for a fight.

Whenever I found a large piece of wood that was being eaten by termites, I would carry it to where I knew siafu were working. What happened was a war equaling in ferocity to Star Wars, or even Lord of The Rings! The siafu always win through sheer numbers, but the termites put up a valiant fight! The dead are all carried back to the brood to feed the siafu young.

Well we didn’t have television!

In the rainy season fertile male siafu become rain ants, and clouds of them emerge from the ground and are attracted to lights. That’s when the kids came around! They collect handfuls and put them in containers with water which caused their wings to fall off. The denuded ants become kumbekumbe and are dry-fried – they have their own natural oil.

Are they tasty? You betcha!


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