Ants. The word ‘ants’ instantly conjures the images of a small creature, barely noticeable as more than a dot to our perceptions. Individually, these dots barely amount to anything for the human experience. Sometimes, we catch glimpses of them, going about their tiny lives but we don’t pay them a second thought beyond a passing glance or thinking: ‘Oh, an ant’. Ants join the myriad of insects in this respect who aren’t given the time of day by our species due to their small natures.
But insects often find ways to grab our attention, rising from their supposedly humble heritage to intrude about the lives of the colossal world that looms around them. With flies, they buzz around our food, attempting to have a bite themselves and zip away from our swatting hands. With mosquitoes, they whine in our ears and probe us repeatedly with their irritating bites for a taste of our blood. And with ants, they use the perhaps most important learned ability a species can have: teamwork.
Using this ability, ants band together by the thousands, swarming into a collective mass that marches from their burrows like a tiny army and venturing out into the world. The individual vanishes as the swarm rises, the ants’ miniature army sharing a singular goal, a singular purpose. A small, lone ant is basically harmless but what about if you saw a swarm of the little insects, a rippling tide of black dots? A line of them all marching toward your tent, in the middle of the night, ready to intrude about your safe zone and make themselves very known to you. That would certainly be cause for panic and even alarm, wouldn’t it? Well, this experience is a common one here at safariLIVE’s camp in the Maasai Mara and I can assure you, I experienced this panic first hand.
At our camp in the wilds of Kenya, we share our safe with many other creatures, including these siafu ants. Their burrows lie scattered about the foothills that make up our camp and all too often, they march. I remember quite well the first time I saw the sight of them. I was walking back to my tent after a mid afternoon meal and happened to see a line of shapes criss-crossing over one of the paths. I blinked and bent down (albeit not getting too close) and saw, to my astonishment, this long black line was composed of hundreds of ants. All crawling forward together, joining into this line, and crawling forward across the trail into the stalks of grass.
Now, I had seen documentaries on siafu ants before but this was my first time seeing them up close. Knowing they had a bit of a fierce reputation, I carefully stepped over the ant swarm and continued on my way, glancing back a few times but soon enough, the ants were out of my thoughts as new ones replaced the brief encounter.
Of course, they soon returned with a vengeance. I learned from our camp manager, Stefan Winterboer, that these ants caused quite a stir when they were on the march in camp. Throughout the day, they would start at the highest points of our little tent mass, making their way lower and lower throughout the day. During this, they would get into people’s tents and come into contact with members of our camp, inflicting numerous painful bites of hapless crew members in the process.
Knowing this, the line of ants suddenly seemed more ominous to me. What if they get into my tent? I thought. The prospect of thousands of ants crawling their way into my living space and possibly biting me was an unpleasant thought, to say the least. The thought was only amplified when Stefan began to send updates about the ants movement throughout the afternoon. It was almost like a scene in a horror movie, as he sent messages to our group, telling us where the ants were in camp, anticipating their strike on crew members and their positions.
When evening fell, a few members of the crew had their tents infested and were forced to abandon their living spaces, gathering blankets and moving instead to sleep in the mess tent. I was determined not to have this happen to me and held out hope the ant invasion wouldn’t reach my doorstep. No such luck. When I was returning from the showers at eight o’clock, I found a long, long line of the ants outside of my tent. Shining my flashlight down at them, I found they were crawling up the sides and forced their way into various open flaps.
I quickly hurried inside and found the invasion had begun in earnest. Piles of ants were crawling out in the corners of my tent. My sanctuary had been breached! My roommate, Manu, took one look at the situation and abandoned his post, grabbing a blanket, a pillow, and his phone before fleeing into the night. He told me to follow him but I stubbornly refused and vowed to hold the fort. I was sleeping in a bed tonight, ants or no ants.
So I sealed up my tent, closing the flaps and zipping up the entrance. The ants who had gotten in seemed content in their corners…for now. So I shut off the lights and got into bed. Of course, as I lay there alone, in the dark, I couldn’t sleep. There are ants inside, I thought to myself as I stared wide eyed into the gloom. What if they come into my bed and bite me? I was kept awake for a long time, just waiting in anticipation in the darkness. The minutes seem to drag on by as I lay there, with nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company.
Eventually, sleep took me. The next morning, I awoke unharmed. The ants had moved on, leaving only a few of their brethren behind. I considered myself quite lucky, having not received a single bite. Manu was surprised when he returned and I was too. Still, the experience had been slightly invigorating and I found myself slightly curious about the ants that had marched through camp.
So I began to research them. I found many details about them which are fascinating (for example, they follow specific paths via the use of concentrated pheromones). Although they’re still quite intimidating, I don’t see them now as horror movie monsters, consuming everything they find. They’re a fascinating part of nature and I find them interesting to watch as they march forth from their burrows. I just hope they avoid my tent this time. One invasion was enough for me, thank you very much.
Written by: Jake McDaniel