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We have a nasty habit of becoming unduly obsessed by the demographics of the United States.  This is to overlook the fascinating demographics of the world’s most populous country, China, where the immense number of people means that there are subgroups larger than very large nations.  For example, contemporary Chinese policymakers and planners agonize over “the ant tribe.”

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The ant tribe is a neologism used to describe certain people born in the 1980s in China’s countryside and small towns. These kids (who are often one-child-policy children) worked incredibly hard to get into universities (while their parents scrimped and saved to send them there).  Once they had a degree they moved to China’s giant cities in order to pursue middle class prosperity…and there they ran straight into a problem which transforms them into ants.

Ant-Tribe

Welcome to the beautiful Super Cities of Contemporary China

Chinese citizens (or “subjects”?) are tethered to a document known as a hukou—a household permit.  The hukou, like some sort of medieval serfdom or indenture, trails the bearer throughout life and then applies to their offspring, no matter where they are born.  So ant-tribe young people move to Guanzhou, Beijing, or Shanghai in order to get worthwhile office jobs which do not exist elsewhere but they are not officially allowed to live there.  Their solution is to move underground: the great cities of China are filled with illegal basement and sub-basement apartments which are the tiny damp bedrooms of sexless, hardworking, subterranean office drones—the ant tribe.

To quote The Globe and Daily Mail:

The “ants” are not indigent beggars or lost souls (who could not afford even sub-basement rent) or low-wage workers (who generally live in workers’ dormitories, 10 to 12 of them to a room, but above ground). Rather, they are ambitious citizens who have been driven underground, literally and figuratively, in their quest for middle-class stability. Their mildewed lives are the material embodiment of something being endured by countless millions of Chinese today, as they attempt to balance President Xi Jinping’s ambition of creating a middle-class China with his party’s desire to control and regulate their lives.

The ants live in extreme penury.  They spend all of their money on rent, bribes, and, eventually, on school fees (without the proper hukou, Children can’t attend school in Beijing unless certain parties are remunerated).  So contemporary China has a larger middle class than it seems to, but it is held back by communist mandarins’ unwillingness to extend people basic property rights or the right to move freely around the country.  China is always touted as the next big thing–the country that will make the future–yet if the clerks, bureaucrats, marketers, salespeople, and number crunchers who are the mainstay of a tertiary sector economy must lead lives of monastic self abnegation (and possibly forgo having families of any size), I see little hope for China’s long term prospects.  The rulers of China must decide whether they want to completely control their people or allow them to flourish.  They seem to have decided on the former…which makes me wonder if this may be the era of “peak China” and the future may be a lot less Sinocentric than everyone says.

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Or maybe we are all destined to live crammed in underground cells with legally questionable identities and China is the innovator of a terrible future (there is ample historical precedent after all)…but I hope not.

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Here’s something from the hinterlands…The Fort Wayne Mad Ants are a minor league basketball team (which is evidently a thing) in Fort Wayne, America’s 77th largest city located in Iowa or Texas or Indiana or something.  The Mad Ants have not always had the most glorious record in basketball…but who cares?  Look at their glorious mascot!

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Number 00!

This 90s-looking abomination is appropriately known as “the Mad Ant.”  According to his website, he is 6’1” tall and his favorite food is “anything at your picnic.” I say “he” because that is how he self-identifies on the internet (although male ants should have wings…so I suspect he is really a female drone).

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The Mad Ant is pretty busy rooting for Mad Ants basketball and helping out at local charities, but big parts of his year are fairly empty, so if you want to book him at your party there is a link.

number-4It’s weird down there at ground level. We humans go around building Dairy Queens, discarding old credit cards, and prospecting for fossil fuels when beneath us, at grass level, strange alien life forms share our world all but unbeknownst to us. The fourth top post of all time illustrates this fact by featuring a tiny animal which is simultaneously endearing and frightening. The velvet ant is not an ant at all—it is a wasp from the family Mutillidae (which has more than 3000 species worldwide). Mutillidae wasps are furry and colorful—like cute little Jim Henson puppets with extra eyes—but they pack a ferocious wallop in their stingers. Female velvet ants are rated a ferocious 3.0 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (a subjective scale which quantifies the agony caused by the stings from Hymenopterans). Male ants have no sting although they do have wings and thus look more wasplike.

 

Panda Ant - (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

Panda Ant – (Mutillidae) photo from rikiblundell

The velvet ant post is notable for being the most-commented on Ferrebeekeeper post of all time. Nearly 70 readers have chimed in with anecdotes about running across the furry little bugs. They seem to be quite prolific in the American South and Southwest (goodness help us). Some of the comments were quite amazing. Adam Riley told us about a terrible childhood experience writing, “I was 6 or 7 years old, playing in the sand of our driveway in S.E. Alabama, when I encountered a velvet ant. I tried to smash it with my hand to painful consequences. Aside from breaking my arm, that is still the most memorable pain I’ve experienced to date. The ‘cow ant,’ as my mom referred to it, was fairly indestructible; trying to crush one was like trying to crush a pebble.”

 

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Unknown female Mutillidae wasp (photo by jaiprox)

Reader Erica captured one and then became trapped in a riding-the-tiger type predicament. She wrote, “I was stung by one on a hiking trip and caught it in a bottle just in case it was poisonous. I have made a little habit for her and put a little drip of sugar water. I don’t want to release her in the city nor do I have the heart to kill such a beautiful exotic creature.”

Perhaps most dramatically of all, Kathy became involved in a protracted battle with a velvet ant. Industrial poisons and specialized weapons were barely sufficient to grant her (eventual) victory. Her story reads like Sci-Fi horror: “They are in my yard in Ohio…actually took video of it after I had hit it four times with fly swatter and sprayed it two times with wasp spray it still lived for the next day just kept curling its body and jabbing its stinger out which reached over its head, freaked me out…….! Hope my kids don’t get stung playing outside.”

Yeesh! Be careful out there people! And keep commenting and writing your stories. I have made a resolution to respond more to comments and to post quotations from the best ones!

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Ant (M.C. Escher, 1943, Lithograph)

Here are two beautiful prints of ants by the great Dutch artist M.C. Escher. In art, ants are frequently metaphors for over ripeness, rottenness or ruin (think of Dali’s ants). Yet in Escher’s works they are something else entirely. The first print, a lithograph from the grim year 1943, shows a single ant. An ant alone hardly seems to exit—they are pieces of a larger superorganism. Yet here we have one of the creatures all by herself. How lovely and delicate she is: look at her crimped antennae and graceful segmented legs. Yet the ant’s head is down, and she has a slightly forlorn cast—as though she is about to be crushed. The print was made at a time when the nations of the world organized themselves into vast battling hives and individual humans hardly seemed to exist any more than individual ants. Working in the occupied Netherlands, the comparison could hardly have escaped the artist.

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

Möbius Strip II (M.C. Escher, 1963, Woodcut)

 

The second print is a woodcut from 1963. A line of red ants march stolidly along a Möbius strip. Because the strip they are on is non-orientable, their little universe has only one endless side. The insects are literally traveling forever. Is this print a tableau of futility or a metaphor for the infinite? The question is about more than just the microcosm the ants are trapped within.

The Life Cycle of Phengaris rebeli (image via http://sciencythoughts.blogspot.com)

The Life Cycle of Phengaris rebeli (image via http://sciencythoughts.blogspot.com)

It’s October—the month of costumes, masks…and monsters.  To start out this year’s Halloween season on an appropriately ghastly note, today’s post deals with a horrifying creature which relies upon disguise to feed itself: namely, the Mountain Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris rebeli).

Native to temperate grasslands of Central Europe, the Mountain Alcon Blue has silvery blue which are stippled in little black spots with delicate white edges. The butterfly flits harmlessly about in gentle meadows, finds a mate, and then the female lays her eggs on a pretty gentian flower.

Aww, it's on a pretty flower (Photo by Tristan Lafranchis)

Aww, it’s on a pretty flower (Photo by Tristan Lafranchis)

So why is this delicate alpine beauty a creature of nightmares? When the Mountain Alcon blue larva hatches, it eats the gentian until it reaches a certain size whereupon it falls to the ground and releases an allomone—a deceptive chemical which makes it seem identical to an ant larva. Foraging ants discover the caterpillar and tenderly carry it deep within the protection of the ant hive to the nursery room where the ant larvae are fed and cared for.  Then the caterpillar reveals another dark talent: it produces a sound which perfectly mimics the ant queen.  Subject to this all-powerful voice of authority, the ants care for the caterpillar as though it were the queen–even going so far as to attack the actual queen.  Obeying the dictates of the awful song, the ants feed the still living ant larvae to the caterpillar which devours the helpless young ants like so many little wiggling burritos (well, if juvenile butterflies ate burritos).

Caterpillar with slave ant (photo by Darlyne A. Murawski)

Caterpillar with slave ant (photo by Darlyne A. Murawski)

When the butterfly pupates into an adult, it loses its ability to mimic ant chemicals or produce the queen’s voice.  The ants recognize it as an invader and attack, but the butterfly’s scales are designed to resist their mandibles.  It flees the crippled and abused ant colony and begins the cycle over again.

Isn't nature beautiful? (photo by Guy Padfield)

Isn’t nature beautiful? (photo by Guy Padfield)

Yet monsters still must fear other monsters and there is an even more invidious predator which seeks out the Alcon larvae deep within ant hives. This is the parasitic wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, which infiltrates ant colonies which are being preyed on by Phengaris rebeli larvae.  The wasp locates the caterpillar and then releases an allomone which causes the ants to go insane and attack one another.  Then in the chaos that follows, the wasp injects its eggs into the living caterpillar.  When the eggs hatch they eat the interloper from inside and then burst out of its carcass.

The parasitic wasp Ichneumon eumerus preying on Phengaris caterpillar while an ant stands by waiting for doom. (Image: J.Thomas/Natural Visions)

The parasitic wasp Ichneumon eumerus preying on Phengaris caterpillar while an ant stands by waiting for doom. (Image: J.Thomas/Natural Visions)

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Ferrebeekeeper, like its author is meant to be benevolent and philosophical.  Yet sometimes, despite our best intentions, we all must grapple with the unthinkable–this is why, today, we descend into a realm of unimaginable pain.  Allow me to present the dreadful bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) also known as the 24-hour ant–the hymenopteran that sits at the apex of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  The worker ants of this genus are 18–30 mm (0.7 to 1.2 inches) long; there are no soldiers or other castes (and the queen herself is not much larger than any of the workers).  They live in nests just underground and they hunt for small arthropods (and nectar) in the trees above.

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

Paraponera clavata worker, Misahuallí, Ecuador

The common name of the ant comes from the 24 hour agony caused by the creature’s excruciating sting.  Victims of the ant claim that being stung feels the same as being shot (and since the ant ranges from Nicaragua and eastern Honduras south to Paraguay, it seems likely that some of the people it has stung have sufficient personal experience to intelligently make the comparison).  The ant’s venom is poneratoxin–a short chain of amino acids held together by covalent bonds–which acts as a neurotoxin.  Poneratoxin affects voltage-dependent sodium ion channels which therefor disrupts synaptic transmission within the central nervous system.  That sounds clinical and antiseptic, but people stung by the ant describe hours upon hour of unrelenting abject agony (along with partial paralysis and general flailing in the afflicted part).

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale--they are not grubbing for money)

Paraponera clavata (the coin is for scale–they are not grubbing for money)

The ants have developed this potent sting as a means to deter animals which might unearth and disturb their underground nests (or otherwise harass them as they hunt and gather food).  Unfortunately, the ants never reckoned on the madness of humans.   The Satere-Mawe people of Brazil, an Amazonian tribe of hunter gatherers utilize the ants as part of their manhood initiation ritual.  Shamans lull a hive of ants into paralysis with smoke and then sew the living ants (stinger end out) into a sort of grass mitten.  Thirteen-year-old boys take turns putting on the mitten for five to ten minutes.  Then the initiates face 24 hours of partial paralysis as well as pain so intense that it causes hallucinations and madness (and some boys die from the ceremony).  In order to be respected as a stoic and fearless warrior a young Satere-Mawe man might undergo this ritual a score of times.

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was...

Prepare to reassess just how bad 8th grade actually was…

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Our nation is being invaded!  The intruders number in the millions.  They are wiping out entire ecosystems, destroying electronics, and setting fires.  Fortunately the invading species, Nylanderia fulva, is rather small:  each individual measures only 3.2 mm (.12 inches).  In 2002 the ants arrived on America’s Gulf Coast from Argentina or Brazil where they live naturally. These ants are called Nylanderia fulva because of their brownish yellow fulvous color, but in America they are more commonly known as crazy ants (thanks to their erratic and non-linear walking patterns) or Rasberry ants—in honor of Tom Rasberry a Texas exterminator who discovered them in Texas.

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The crazy ants have spread extensively in Texas and Florida and they have footholds in Mississippi and Louisiana.  They are highly successful foragers and hunters of small arthropods and, like some other ants, they farm aphids (!).  Nylanderia fulva is capable of forming extremely large hives with multiple queens—which gives them surprising immunity from many common American insecticides and ant-killing chemicals.  They are out-competing native fire ants and changing the micro-fauna of the areas where they are flourishing.

Crazy-ants

For whatever reason, crazy ants are attracted to electronics.  Because of their small size, they climb inside all sorts of switches, circuit boxes, and electric gizmos.  If an ant stumbles into a transistor and dies, its corpse emits a chemical which causes fellow hive members to rush to the scene (this is an evolutionary strategy for fending off attackers).  Unfortunately, the reinforcement ants are themselves electrocuted which causes a grim feedback scenario.  These ant death spirals can cause electronics to become disabled, or switch permanently on/off, or just catch fire (since they are jam packed with electrified ant corpses).

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Justin Orvel Schmidt (pictured above) is an entomologist who specializes in insect defenses.  His greatest expertise is in the stings of hymenopterans—the bees, wasps, sawflies, hornets, and ants (although he also researches the toxic/chemical defences of other arthropods).   In the early 1980’s Schmidt attempted to systematize the different medical and physiological effects of insect stings.  This work led him to coauthor one of the comprehensive tomes on the subject of insect venom Insect Defenses: Adaptive Mechanisms and Strategies of Prey and Predators.  Unfortunately for Schmidt, in the course of his researches, he has been stung/bitten innumerable times by various aggressive and toxic insects (and other creepy crawlies) from around the world.

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants.  In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Did you know that bullet ants look just like ants? In a moment that fact will horrify you. ( Photo: Getty Images/Peter Arnold)

Based on these experiences, Schmidt attempted to categorize the algogenic (i.e. pain-inducing) effects of hymenopteran stings in the now world-famous Schmidt sting pain index.  This index is a captivating blend of subjective pain analysis, horrifying real world experience, and inventive poetry.   The lowest sting on the Schmidt index is a 0—betokening a sting which has no effect on humans. The highest rating is a 4 which describes an experience of maddening absolute agony.  The index became famous because of an interview with Outdoor magazine.  Schmidt has since conceded that his descriptive efforts lack an empirical basis and that stings vary depending on body location and the amount of venom injected.  Because of such admissions, Wikipedia took down its remarkable table of stings–which is a shame because the subjective descriptions gave the index its visceral power.  Here is a sampling copied verbatim from “Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog”:

1.0 Sweat bee: Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.

1.2 Fire ant: Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.

1.8 Bullhorn acacia ant: A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.

2.0 Bald-faced hornet: Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.

2.0 Yellowjacket: Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W. C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.

2.x Honey bee and European hornet: Like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin.

3.0 Red harvester ant: Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.

3.0 Paper wasp: Caustic & burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.

4.0 Pepsis wasp: Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.

4.0+ Bullet ant: Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.

While the work lacks rigorous empirical criteria, even the most relentlessly analytical critics seem to aver that being stung by over 150 different species of arthtopods gives Schmidt a certain robust validity.  The literary merit of the metaphors is certainly genuine (although one hopes that the good Doctor Schmidt never actually dropped a hair dryer into his bubble bath or let misanthropic vaudevillians torture him with fire).   Personally I have only been stung by sweat bees, honey bees, and yellow jackets, so I cannot testify to the more esoteric sting ratings (thankfully–since yellowjacket stings nearly did me in), however something sounds completely right about the yellowjacket sting description.  I recall a moment of warmth which metastasized almost immediately into a sour panic-inducing pain which spread through my arm and then my body.

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

A Yellow Jacket Sting (photo credit: Richard Martyniak)

In conclusion, I salute Justin Orvel Schmidt as a man of science and a masochistic poet/performance artist.  If he claims that a bullet ant sting is the worst hymenopteran sting, I see no cause to contradict him and I never want to think about it again.

Maculinea arion

Hey, look at that!  It’s a delicate pale blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) from Europe and northern Asia. What could this ethereal creature have to do with the horror theme which this blog has been following as a lead-up to Halloween?  In fact, what does the butterfly have to do with any of Ferrebeekeeper’s regular themes?  Butterflies are lepidopterans rather than the hymenoptera we favor here.

As it turns out—the butterfly has a lot to do with hymenopterans.  Maculinea arion, or “the large blue butterfly ” to use its not-very-creative English name, may look innocent as a butterfly, but in its larval stage the creature is both appalling and remarkable.   Alcon caterpillars are myrmecophiles—which means the caterpillars live in association with ants.  Despite the Greek meaning of ”myrmecophile”  (to love ants) the relationship is anything but loving on the part of the Alcon caterpillar–unless love is meant in the same way as “to love ham”.

Maculinea arion (Large Blue) larva carried by ant (Drawing by Frohawk)

M. arion caterpillars are relentless predators of ant larvae.  The way they obtain this fragile foodstuff is remarkable for sophistication and ruthless guile.  When a caterpillar hatches, it lives for a few days on wild thyme or marjoram plants.  The caterpillar then secretes a sweet substance which attracts red ants which carry the larva back to their tunnels.

Inside the ant hive, the caterpillar produces pheromones and chemical scents which mimic those of the ant queen.  It also scrapes a small ridge on its first segment to produce the same noise as the ant queen. The ants are deceived by the caterpillar’s mimicry and they take it to the chamber where they rear their own larvae.  The ants wait on the caterpillar as though it were the hive monarch and they even feed it ant larvae—their own undeveloped siblings.  Once it pupates, the butterfly scrapes the inside of its chrysalis to continue the deception.  When the butterfly emerges from its cocoon the hapless ants carry it outside and guard it as its wings harden—whereupon the butterfly departs to mate and lay eggs on wild thyme or marjoram plants.

Phengaris alcon

The Maculinea Arion is not the only caterpillar to make use of this strategy.   The Phengaris alcon butterfly acts in almost exactly the same way.  Here is where the story becomes impressively crazy.   A parasitoid wasp, Ichneumon eumerus, feeds on the alcon caterpillar inside the ant hive.  The wasp infiltrates the hive by spraying a pheromone which causes the ants to attack each other.  While they are busy fighting, the wasp lays its eggs inside the caterpillar.  The wasp larvae hatch into the body of the caterpillar (which the ants think of as a queen) and they eat the caterpillar host safe in the cloak of this deception.

The parasitic wasp Ichneumon eumerus. (Image: J.Thomas/Natural Visions)

If an ant hive becomes too saturated with caterpillars it will die and all three species inside the hive will likewise perish).   The red ants in this scenario are constantly evolving new pheromone signals to outcompete the caterpillars and wasps—which in turn coevolve with the ants.  It’s strange to imagine the troubling world of deception, chemical warfare, and carnage just beneath the ground.

Chullachaqui (painting by David Hewson)

If you are wondering through the great untouched rainforests of the Amazon basin, you will sometimes come across a clearing devoid of all vegetation save for a few trees.  These bare patches are known as devil’s gardens and are said to be the haunt of the fearsome Chuyachaqui (or Chullachaqui), a shape shifting demon which delights in causing misfortune to travelers.  Although the Chuyachaqui’s default form is that of a small misshapen man with one hoof and one human foot, the demon can change shape into a person known to the traveler in order to mislead the latter to doom.

Lemon ants (Myrmelachista schumanni), so named because they are said to have an acidic lemony taste

Scientists were curious about these small bare patches of forest. After carefully studying the ecosystem, they discovered that a force nearly as diabolical as the Chuyachaqui is responsible.  The lemon ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, produces formic acid, a natural herbicide which it methodically injects into the plants in a “devil’s clearing”.  The only plants which the ants leaves alone are Duroia hirsuta, “lemon ant trees” which have evolved a mutualistic relationship with the ants.  The lemon ants keep the forest free of competing trees and plants, while the lemon ant tree is hollow inside—a perfect natural ant hive and its leaves provide a source of nutrition for the lemon ants (which are a sort of leaf-cutter).

A clearing filled with lemon ant trees

Large colonies of lemon ant trees have been found which are believed to be more than 800 years old—far older than the life of any ant colony or individual tree.  It is remarkable to think these ant/tree settlements have been part of the rainforest since before the Mongol conquests.

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