In the classic novel, The Poison wood Bible, there is a scene in which a swarm of driver ants devours an entire village in the Congo. Can this really happen? Enjoy this short article on driver ants in Africa.
Driver ants are indigenous to central and eastern Africa, more specifically the area around the Congo, which is the setting for The Poison wood Bible. The colonies are very large, and can number into the 20 millions. The colonies center on the queen, who measures approximately 5 cm long. She is solely responsible for laying 1-2 million eggs every MONTH! A lone male driver ant, measuring approximately 3 cm, relies on scent to find a highway of driver ants. Once he does the female worker ants strip him of his wings and carry him to the queen. Shortly after fertilizing the queen, the male dies.
Due to their voracious appetite, driver ants in Africa must move frequently from feeding ground to feeding ground. During the move, which can attain a speed of 20 meters per hour, the swarm can be as large as 25 meters wide and 5 meters deep. At each new home, they set up a bivouac and organize themselves into an extremely efficient eating machine. The soldier driver ants protect the queen and larva while the worker driver ants bring food to the queen. Within a few days, the colony of driver ants in Africa moves on, leaving little in its wake.
What Do Driver Ants in Africa Eat? Do They Really Consume Humans?
Driver ants mostly eat earthworms. However, it is not uncommon for them to consume any other animal life in their path, everything from insects up to, and including, in rare cases, humans. The prey which is most at risk, both among animals and humans, are those who are unable to leave the area: the tethered, the infirm, and the immobile. Unattended human babies could conceivable be devoured by driver ants. Cows, goats and chickens have all fallen prey to the voracity of driver ants, especially if they were tied or cooped up with no way to escape.
Driver ants consume their prey both from the outside and the inside. They are attracted to soft, moist tissue, such as lips and nostrils. Once driver ants find their way inside a mammal, they follow the esophagus into the stomach and the trachea into the lungs, and begin consumption. The victim dies a painful death, usually from asphyxiation. A large swarm of driver ants can reduce a mammal to skeleton in four hours.
Benefits of Driver Ants
This sounds very unpleasant to Westerners; however, indigenous Africans have learned to benefit from the presence of driver ants. When a village is alerted to the imminent arrival of a large horde of driver ants, the humans take their families and animals out of the path of the ants. The ants then consume what villages consider to be household pests, both outside and inside their homes. Mice, rats, snakes and other household pests, as well as garden pests, are then consumed by the driver ants. The villages return to their homes, which have been ‘spring-cleaned.’
Driver Ants As Emergency Sutures
Another beneficial use native Africans have discovered for the driver ant is as a temporary suture. A driver ant is captured, and encouraged to use its magnificently strong mandibles to bite the patient on either side of a cut. The mandibles are very difficult to loosen; the body of the ant is broken off, while the head is left on the wound, acting as a butterfly bandage.
Although The Poison wood Bible is a work of fiction, there are truths about life in the Congo. One of those truths is the power of driver ants. While not as intense as sensationalized movies about killer ants, driver ants can kill. On the other hand, as with all things in nature, they offer benefits to their environment as well.