At residence with the pink hearth ant – and its many potent kin

I failed to note the ants at first. Small and pale pink, they have been barely seen on my sunburned ft as I bumbled across the barbecue in what I wrongly believed then to be “my” Amazonian rainforest backyard. However the bugs, I used to be about to be taught, had prior possession they usually aggressively made clear I used to be not welcome on their territory.

At first, I felt a barely imperceptible sting, then one other, and one other till that they had my full consideration. Like a dull-witted, clumsy Gulliver, I seemed down in disbelief to see dozens of the tiny insect lilliputians swarming up my toes and throughout the instep. The ants, I noticed with a combination of horror and curiousity, have been stopping each few seconds to clamp down and inject venom into the flesh. They seemed to be armed with the repeater rifle of the insect world that gave them a capability to sting a number of occasions in fast succession. As increasingly joined the assault, the build-up of alkaloid poison turned my pores and skin blotchy and the feeling felt much less and fewer like a pinprick and increasingly like a burn. Fascination was now changed by concern as I hopped backwards and forwards, desperately attempting to brush the invaders off of my legs. I had lastly realised what I used to be coping with: hearth ants.

A fireplace ant. {Photograph}: Minden Photos/Alamy

Within the hours that adopted, the world round every of the handfuls of bites grew infected and dotted with prickling pink bumps. Inside a day, these swelled right into a mountain vary of epidermic volcanoes, every capped with a white, fluid-filled blister. The urge to itch was monumental. I needed to scratch all of the pores and skin off my ft – however on the similar time I used to be crammed with admiration that one thing so small may create a sensation so highly effective. My spouse, Eliane (Ani) Brum, steered that maybe the lesson I ought to take from this was not simply in regards to the surprise of nature, however that I put on one thing stouter on my ft than flip-flops.

To dwell within the rainforest is to dwell with ants. Greater than another residents, they’re the good forest engineers and waste-disposal groups. There are a minimum of six completely different species in our backyard. (Ani and I now not declare sole possession of this land, however hope we are able to peacefully share the house with them.) Probably the most spectacular guests are the military ants who march in columns by way of the centre of our residence a couple of times a yr. The primary time I woke as much as discover 1000’s of those bugs parading throughout our lounge ground, I used to be amazed and a little bit terrified. “Don’t fear,” a neighbour reassured me. “They’ll be gone in just a few hours.” And positive sufficient, they have been.

Among the many everlasting residents, probably the most seen are the leafcutters, who’re misleadingly nicknamed “big-arse ants” in lots of components of Latin America as a result of their heads are formed like bums. Because the title suggests, leafcutters are usually light herbivores. I’ve seen their nests – which may rise as much as waist-height and appear like an architectural design by Antoni Gaudí – overrun by a lot smaller, however extra aggressive, quite a few and agile termites.

Leafcutter ants.
Leafcutter ants. {Photograph}: Bence Mate/NPL/Alamy

However even leafcutters will be moody. Annually, when the winged virgin queens and drones take to the air in the course of the peak of the wet season, their colonies are on excessive alert. As soon as once more I used to be gradual to grasp the change. I ought to have realised when my canine began to whimper and again away as we approached the nest, however I used to be too wanting to take {a photograph} of the swarm of bugs rising out of the colony like billowing smoke from a hearth. Positive sufficient, inside seconds, I felt a painful chew. Relative to its dimension, the leafcutter has some of the highly effective mandibles on this planet. Considered one of them had eliminated a bit of pores and skin a number of layers deep from my large toe, leaving my foot so bloodied that it seemed extra just like the aftermath of an encounter with a piranha. As soon as once more, Ani jogged my memory to not put on flip-flops within the forest. However it was a minimum of solely a chew. No poison. No after-effects.

The identical couldn’t be stated of the bullet ant that wandered on to our balcony earlier this yr. This time I used to be bare-footed, feeling secure in my residence, nevertheless it was darkish and I didn’t discover the solitary predator. The tucandeira – as bullet ants are recognized in our a part of Brazil – are normally exhausting to overlook. They’re 5 or 6 occasions greater than hearth ants and their armour has the shiny reflective black sheen of an insect Darth Vader.

A bullet ant.
A bullet ant. {Photograph}: Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters

In addition they pack some of the vicious stings within the animal world, a bullet-like surge of poneratoxin that’s stated to be 30 occasions extra painful than a standard wasp. The entomologist Justin O. Schmidt ranked this on the most degree 4 on his sting ache index and described the feeling as “pure, intense, sensible ache … like strolling over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.”

For me, it was a extra gradual evolution of agony. At first, I assumed I had stubbed my toe, however as an alternative of subsiding, the ache welled up like a tsunami as my foot turned pink and puffy over the approaching hours. I then seemed for the perpetrator, who – positive sufficient – was nonetheless lurking on our deck. The smarting persevered all night time and a lot of the subsequent day, regardless of my efforts to numb the world with ice. One other lesson from the ant world. One other reminder from Ani to put on smart sneakers.

With the information that invasive hearth ants (not essentially the identical subspecies as those that bit me) are actually being present in southern Europe – with maybe different species to observe – Ani’s recommendation might be the very best precaution that holidaymakers can take. However I’d not fear an excessive amount of, so long as you aren’t allergic (by which case there could also be a threat of anaphylactic shock). Regardless of headlines about killer bugs, the dangers are manageable for most individuals and the bites and stings are intriguing. Even so, it could be clever to not sit on the bottom in shorts until you’ve first scoured the world for the nests of one of many world’s hardest-working creatures.

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