Wednesday 29 February 2012

A close encounter with weaver ants

Kumily, Kerala, S India

We saw these ants when we were visiting the Muthuplackal Aroma Spices Garden. They were climbing up a post and the owner, Sebastian, promptly squashed one and told me: "Smell my hand!". Well, I did and it smelled rather strong but I wasn't sure where the smell came from. His own hand? Hmmm. So I asked if I could smell his other hand and indeed that strong citrusy smell was from the poor ant.  From then on I was given many, many things to smell and to taste, and guess what they were... Absolutely wonderful collection of aromas, but I digress.

Back to the ants. With great emphasis and flourish Sebastian explained to me that they did not bite humans. He demonstrated this by placing his hand on the post that they were climbing.

Weaver ants Oecophylla smaragdina leaving Sebastian's hand alone
I was really excited by this fantastic chance encounter and was frantically taking photos. 
Sebastian also told me that they were gardener's friend and in some of my pictures I captured some ants carrying things up to their nest up in a tree.

Weaver ants cooperating with the carrying of prey, possibly harvester ants

Then, were they the ants that the Chinese used a long time ago to keep their orange orchards free of insect pests?
I found the answer to this recently in a Safari Ecology blog: A few things you (probably) didn't know about weaver ants. Yes, the Chinese used weaver ants! They nest up in trees and this is really rather convenient position to clean things down below. 

Another exciting discovery, this one with the help of my friend Theo Tamblyn, I was able to identify something puzzling that one ant was carrying. A mealybug!

Weaver ant carrying a mealybug

Now in Alex Wild Photography absolutely brilliant website there is even a photo of weaver ants milking mealy bugs inside a silken tent, click here
As for their nest, it was a fresh one. 

The nest of those weaver ants
I was delighted with such a find, we had seen puzzling nests high up in trees in various places. First, in Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Singapore. Then, in various places in Bangladesh. Sometimes they cover quite a wide area and look quite striking when the trees have lost some of their leaves, this was our closest nest.

We had a good look through David's binoculars and then passed them on to Sebastian and his wife. They were fascinated. He said: " Each ant weighs 1 kilo!".

I have also learned in The Superorganism (a very nice present from David) that the ants weave their nests with the silk from their last instar larvae by moving it around with great skill. Also that they have a very developed social structure and have been the subject of intensive research. They have a number very speciliased secretions either from their mouth or special glands, I'm not surprised at that strong smell in Shaybu's hand ;-)

Amazing how much I've captured in such a short time, I wished that I had stayed longer... 


  1. Great photos! These little guys really are worth looking at...

    1. Thanks! Yes, these ants are fascinating. Do you know anybody that would be able to identify them?

    2. Got their ID! Alex Wild has very kindly told me:
      "There's only one species of weaver ant like that in India,
      and it's Oecophylla smaragdina (this species is green in Australia,
      oddly enough, but red everywhere else)."