Black Army

Frank Lukupwa

© Copyright 2020 by Frank Lukupwa

Photo of hissing ants.

I live in an area that has many colonies of black ants. Its not uncommon almost everyday to see these creatures in a column going somewhere. There are many types of black ants. Many are small, unlike these ones which are very dark and big. Sometimes their "cities" can be found near peoples' homes, making it look like they came to make their dwelling among us. The fact is that man, as he moves and expands his territory gets to build on areas home to other forms of life.

What makes these black ants popular among many people is that they are extremely "hot tempered" and easily provoked. They are ready to bite with their mouths at the slightest provocation. However, mankind has learned to live side by side with wildlife and appreciate the fact that life is a platform for coexistence.

Many occasions when people come across the "black army" they simply stop to give them way or jump over them and continue to go. These ants are so sensitive that they would detect the presence of an intruder and start to hiss. Whenever they do that, they would break out of their single file and start to search around for the enemy. Soon it will emerge that as they were scattered all around, they were also moving forward.

I once decided to learn more on them. Not far from our farm I located their hole. It was an opening as big as a banana in width. In order to make sure I didn't miss out on all that they do, I started to go to their hole half an hour before sunrise.

I was surprised to find that they wake up before that time and would have sent out a number of well trusted spies already to go out and find where food could be gathered. Usually, they look under rotting trees and grass on the ground as that is where their food; another type of insects, the white and red termites live.

These spies have to make sure they bring the reports back before sunrise. They normally want to work when the weather is cool.

It is a very risky job to be a spy. Nothing less than success is demanded of them. As they are waiting for the first "good report", the whole community would be locked inside, but on high alert waiting for an order to go out. Only the guards, the no nonsense sentries would stay close to the opening of the entrance, scanning for enemies and also in wait for the spies. The guards know who must be out at each given time and for how long. They have strict orders to keep the whole community safe. If anyone gets out for no apparent reason, he could be assured that if they don't chop him into pieces as he goes, it would happen on his return.

The same happens to the spies who take long to come back long after their friends have brought back good reports. They can't enter the community anymore. They are deemed useless and not permitted to enter into the hole. These are the lone ones that people see moving about in the bush. They have to learn to live on their own. The implication is that there is great competition among the spies to make sure each one of them comes back first. You can literally see from the urgency and anxiety that they work with that they know what a failed mission means to their lives.

The problem with the black ants is that they don't want to get some information which they can use tomorrow. They believe in today, meaning that a late spy, even if he found food cannot convince his friends that he has done a good job too, and that they can go there to collect it the following day. He will be barred for good. The "rejected" spies are nonetheless skilled hunters and can manage to continue life on their own.

When a spy arrives back, he is screened to make sure he was among those who were sent. Then he can enter. Within a short time the black ants finally get an order and move out in a good single file. Obviously, the spy who brought the report moves in front to lead the way. Even then, it would be impossible to know which black ant is the leader. Many people have believed that it’s only the leader who can move in front. In my observation, I found that it was hard to know him. He does not travel with the group but moves ahead some meters from them. Meanwhile, behind him, there would be guys posing as the "leader". One of them would go in front for some minutes, then he would fall back, giving chance to another one to "act." There may be more that twenty of them acting as "the leader." Among these "impostors" would be the warrior who knows where he saw the food.

As the column moves, strict discipline is demanded from everyone to maintain the same pace and to keep in formation.

When the dreaded army finally arrives at the scene of food collection, you cannot like the way they treat their victims. They at once become ferocious, turning every dry leaf and blade of rotten grass. They would start by attacking the big red headed guards of the termites, cutting them into pieces with untold "fury." When the area is cleared, they would embark on killing the small white termites until the whole camp is silenced. Then they would start to pick their plunder. After everyone has lifted his load, an order is given and quickly they start to move out of the place. If it is still cool and it seems that the food is abundant there, they will rush and come back.

The black ants understand the importance of food security. No matter how you try to disturb them on the way they will not drop their food, but will try to fend you off by producing a stench as they fiercely hiss and scamper all over the place. Meanwhile, the "soldiers" tasked to protect the convoy would try as much as possible to locate and attack you, paving way for the food carriers to move on. The soldiers do not carry food. Their job is to cover their friends.

As the black ants move, the soldiers would be going up and down the column to make sure all is well. It is surprising that the black ants take even their small young ones on hunting expeditions. These only watch what goes on and carry no load.

When the army arrives at their hole, access is quickly given and as soon as they have all entered the guards seal the entrance to prevent possible infiltrators who may want to pose as members of the group. All their bodies hidden, only a little fraction of their heads pop out, scanning the area with their aerials and ever open eyes.

Immediately after depositing their food, a dozen "warriors" go out to look for the lost and injured colleagues, especially the young ones. These amateurs have to make a hissing sound to make them be noticed. They may be lifted over and helped to cross certain obstacles or if they are too weak or injured be “rolled up" and carried in the mouth. This trick makes a scary sight and causes someone to think some "weird" creature is coming up against him; making him bolt.

It is a well known fact that always roll call is conducted and every individual's presence verified. After the "medical" personnel have certified who can recover and who can't, the condemned are bundled outside and thrown on the dump bin to decompose. These are the lifeless heads of insects that people see when they pass near black ants' holes.

The following day it would be business as usual. The survival of the fittest continues in a community where loyalty, bravely, self discipline and hard work are not questionable.

Frank Lukupwa is a Zambian writer who has been working on many articles in poetry, fiction and nonfiction and hopes to publish them. In addition, he has done manuscripts on nature, his favourite topic. He has attended writing seminars on children's books with the University of Zambia. He works as Magistrate and lives in Mumbwa, Zambia with his wife and four children.  Apart from writing, Frank likes listening to world news and visiting places.

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