Battles So Fierce, They Could Almost Be Human


We lost one of the grand patrons of the nerdy childhood this past week. Milton Levine—Uncle Milton to you—sold his first Ant Farm in 1956, launching a mail-order formicarium empire and inspiring, for a time at least, millions of junior entomologists. I made do with older ant-watching techniques, spending countless childhood summer hours belly-down on the sidewalk behind our garage, nose-to-mandible with the red ant colonies that thrived there.

I was fascinated by their busy digging, and both alarmed and thrilled by occasional gruesome spectacles. I remember thinking how like Paleolithic mammoth-hunters the scores of ants subduing and dismembering a vastly larger caterpillar seemed, unable to look away as the creature writhed and squirmed under the ants’ devastating, coordinated attack.

The more advanced ant observer will eventually encounter all manner of human-like behaviors, from weaving (nests, in trees) to farming (fungi, underground) to herding and “milking” other animals (aphids, disgusting). But by far ants’ most anthropomorphous characteristic is the facility with which they go to war with their neighbors.

True warfare—as distinct from simple territorial battles—is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom. Humans and chimpanzees do it, certainly, and under some circumstances wolves and hyenas probably do too. But for many ants, pitched battles and running raids against members of their own species are as common as they have been throughout human history.

Catherine Chalmers is an artist living in New York. Her stunning videos and photographs come closer than anything I’ve seen to capturing the tension between fascination and revulsion that many of us feel for insects, with satisfying veins of childlike fantasy and the familiar-alien intensity of insect life running throughout.

One year ago, she was in Costa Rica filming leafcutter ants. The video creates a ritualistic procession of these famously marching ants, carrying brightly colored offerings to a golden ant idol. (It’s all a conceit of the artist of course, though a resonant one. The worship of an idealized version of oneself is hardly absent from the human experience.) One can imagine the difficulties of “ant wrangling,” as Chalmers calls it, but on this trip she encountered a particularly frustrating problem: the colony she was working with kept getting attacked by its neighbors.

The photographs here document a St. Valentines Day battle, fought when a roving band from a neighboring next attacked Chalmers’ cast, mid-session. “I could tell something was happening,” she told me earlier this week. “The ants were scattered, and frantic.” She grabbed her still camera—a Canon 5D with MP-E65 macro lens and twin light flash rig—and captured the ensuing massacre in startling clarity.

“The soldier ants are mostly stationed around the nest,” Chalmers explains, “so this battle was worker versus worker.” She saw horrors of biblical proportion—six tiny ants swarming a larger foe, which fought on till all its appendages were gone; severed heads and limbs strewn about the plain white background of her jungle set-in-miniature—and then, in minutes, it was over.

Chalmers and her ants soldiered on—it’s what ants and artists do—despite ongoing attacks. She returns to Costa Rica next week, anxious to see if her colony has survived, and to shoot a third and final installment in her ant video series. The three videos will be released together once they’ve been completed. But in the meantime, Chalmers generously shared more of her battle photos with LWON. Click on the images throughout for full resolution–and think of Uncle Milton when you do.

Credits Battling ant photos: Catherine Chalmers, Young lad with an Ant Farm: artist unknown, borrowed from this nice collection of E.O. Wilson-ia. For more stunning photos of ants and other insects, visit Alexander Wild, Fellow person of LWON Virginia Hughes first introduced me to Chalmers through her post on insect art. Thanks, Ginny!

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4 thoughts on “Battles So Fierce, They Could Almost Be Human

  1. Ant warfare really is brutal! I just read E.O. Wilson’s novel Anthill a few weeks ago, and could hardly read the chapter on the total war that his fictional anthills engaged in. All that gore!

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