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honeypot_ant

Like bee hives, ant colonies have all sorts of specialized ants. Soldier ants with mighty mandibles guard the hive. The queen ant becomes a gargantuan reproductive machine and pumps out an endless swarm of underlings. Drone ants develop wings to fly high into the air to mate with fledgling queens. Yet the strangest of all ant jobs (to my mind at least) is held by honeypot ants.

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ant repletes (Camponotus inflatus) hanging from the roof a hive tunnel

Honeypot ants are found in six or seven genera of seasonal ants located in Africa, Australia, Melanesia, and North America. The ants function as living granaries/reservoirs. They find an underground location deep in the hive and use their own bodies as storehouses to protect the hive from drought and famine. As soon as they develop from larvae, the specialized honeypot ants transform into grapelike spheroids capable of ballooning to many time the size of normal ants. During the rainy season, when food is plentiful, worker ants stuff the honeypot ants to the edge of bursting with prey and provender. These living warehouses can store liquids, body fat, and water for long periods in their grotesquely distended abdomens. When the dry season hits and resources become scarce, worker ants stroke the antennae of the honeypot ants and the latter to disgorge their precious stores of liquids and nutrients.

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

image credit: lonelyplanetimages.com

Living deep underground, honeypot ants are seldom seen by people. They were first documented in 1881 by Henry Christopher McCook (a civil war chaplain, polymath, and entomological pioneer). Yet hunter gatherers have known of them since time immemorial. The strange grapelike ants are regarded as a unique delicacy to Australia’s indigenous people who have worked the strange bulbous ants into stories of the dreamtime—the ancient magical creation of the world. Of course the world is not finished and the dreamtime is still ongoing and honeypot ants are out there, engorged in the darkness, doing their part. We just never see them.

Sd4AeqY

The Rainbow Serpent (artwork by Kinjaii)

The Australian Aboriginal people believe there is a world or era which exists beyond this world, the Dreamtime.  In that timeless transcendent realm, totemic forces and mighty spirit beings perpetually shape the earth.  One of the most important of these spirits was the great rainbow serpent, an immense magical snake which lives simultaneously in the watercourses, deep billabongs, and underground springs of Australia, in the rain, and, of course, in the eternal Dreamtime. 

According to myth, the rainbow serpent created the rivers and mountains of Australia in the course of his or her travels.   Serpent stories vary from tribe to tribe.  Different groups even call the spirit serpent by various names, but the concept is pan-Australian.  Aboriginal tribes which live in the monsoon regions of Australia tell stories about the serpent’s interaction with the sun and the wind to bring the seasonal rains.  Tribes from the deep desert tell about its underground travels through the underworld between the permanent waterholes.

Painting by Susanne Iles

The serpent can appear in the sky as a rainbow, however its true nature is as fickle as ever-changing water.  To some people, the serpent brings healing, knowledge, and fertility while he gulps down others, drowns them, or visits sickness upon them. The voice of the rainbow serpent is the sound of a didgeridoo.  George Chaloupka, an expert on folklore and rock art describes the Rainbow Serpent as follows:

“The belief in the Rainbow Snake, a personification of fertility, increase (richness in propoagation of plants and animals) and rain, is common throughout Australia. It is a creator of human beings, having life-giving powers that send conception spirits to all the waterholes. It is responsible for regenerating rains, and also for storms and floods when it acts as an agent of punishment against those who transgress the law or upset it in any way. It swallows people in great floods and regurgitates their bones, which turn into stone, thus documenting such events. Rainbow snakes can also enter a man and endow him with magical powers, or leave ‘little rainbows’, their progeny, within his body which will make him ail and die. As the regenerative and reproductive power in nature and human beings, it is the main character in the region’s major rituals.”

The first humans whose titanic existence marked the dreamtime, who brought flora to the world were said to have been swallowed up by the rainbow serpent. Although timeless and nigh omnipotent, the rainbow serpent did come from somewhere. Aborigines believe that it was an offspring of the vast cosmological serpent, visible as the dark streak in the Milky Way.

Good grief! It does look like a serpent...

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