Bitten by Knowledge

Written by Breanne Downs

While hiking through the jungle in Hacienda Baru, I saw millions of ants crawling through the dirt. Our tour guides warned us about the danger of army ants as we crossed into their territory. I cautiously watched my step and avoided their trails because I did not want to destroy their home.

Ants can carry 10 – 50 times their body weight. These leaves were no challenge!

We were surrounded by army and leaf cutter ants as we made our way towards our cabins. I was accustomed to small, pesky ants crawling into my space and taking over my food. These ants were bigger than the black ants that invade my kitchen and sneak into my jar of honey.

            The leaf cutter ants grabbed my attention because some of them were carrying giant leaves on their backs. The green leaves on the jungle floor appeared as if they were moving by themselves because the ants utilized their entire bodies to carry the leaves back to their colony. I kneeled down to catch a better glimpse and saw that small black ants were running throughout the trail. These ants were checking the different types of leaves for fungi and our tour guide jokingly called them “quality control”. Their job was to make sure that the leaves did not carry any diseases that could harm and potentially eliminate their colony.

The bustling trail only consisted of female leaf cutter ants. The female ants were considered the workers within the colony. I was reminded of Beyonce’s uplifting song empowering girls throughout the world to take charge of their own communities. The female ants provided their colony with leaves, berries, and flowers that served as materials for shelter. They carried these materials to the queen who was the biggest and most powerful ant within the colony.

Our tour guide showing us an army ant up close
Our tour guide showing us an army ant up close

The workers gathered materials far away from their colony because they wanted to stay dry under piles of leaves that created a natural umbrella during the rainy season. Some ants travel approximately 1/2 mile in order to secure their supplies. I did not know that the ants were blind because their trail paralleled a crowded freeway in Los Angeles, California. I was reminded of a freeway because of their ability to create lanes for different directions and move at similar speeds. Some ants acted as policemen because they quickly removed any unwanted leaves that blocked the roads and disrupted the flow of traffic.

Did you know that the jaw of an ant can be used in place of stitches?!
Did you know that the jaw of an ant can be used in place of stitches?!

Before this trip, I knew nothing about my least favorite insect. In my mind, all ants were annoying and scary due to their ability to crawl into small crevasses. I carried my negative generalizations about ants into Costa Rica and I now realize that my lack of knowledge fueled my fears. The tour guides provided me with armor against my greatest enemy in the jungle because they explained the daily lives of leaf cutter ants. My newfound knowledge allowed me to see that they were hard-working and motivated insects trying to fulfill their purpose within their community. Regardless of size, every living being has a place in the animal kingdom.