Rain’s coming

Thunderstorms are expected sometime today, according to weather websites, but I’ve known it was going to rain since yesterday, without the help of the interwebs. How?

Because of the ants.

What, you say? What do ants have to do with anything?

Dad instilled me with a little country gem of learnin’ back when I was a wee thing. Before it’s going to rain, the ants start dragging scraps of dirt out of their tunnels to make a hill around the entry. It looks like little dirt volcanoes all over the yard by the time they’re done, with the hole still visible at the bottom. (I should remember next time I see a few and take a photo.) The only thing I don’t know is the purpose of it. Do they do this so the rain will run down the slopes away from the hole? Are they trying to funnel it in? Or are they wanting the rain to pound the dirt back over their hole so nobody gets wet?

I’m doing some googling to see if I can find anyone who’s written about this somewhere else but I’m not having any luck. There’s a bunch of info on how to deal with fire ants, which these aren’t. Fire ants make mounds for a different reason and do so after the rain stops. Some other species of ant swarms after it rains and the new queens set up nests elsewhere, the digging of which leaves a ring of dirt around a hole.

From that same website, I discover that some ants have declared themselves the protectors of caterpillars. It’s a symbiotic relationship:

Among the allied species, ants come out of the chamber first and run all over the caterpillar’s host plant. If no predators are present to chase them, they come back for the caterpillar and lead it to a branch with plenty of leaves. Before daybreak it is herded back to the chamber to hide once again.

They also let the caterpillar eat their larvae while it’s in there. Darwinism in action? Culling the dumb ones before they have a chance to do something stupid?

There is a changing of the guard every day or two — another small group of ants takes over and guards the caterpillar, while the others return to the nest. This makes me wonder if they are going home to “sleep off the honeydew?” Is honeydew like a drug or alcohol to the ants? Can ants get drunk?

The honeydew is a liquid they’ve licked off the butts of leafhoppers and contains amino acids their diets otherwise lack. This method of getting a drink is a common behavioural trait for this particular type of ant and their own asses stick straight up while they do that, which helps people know what kind of ants they are. According to the essay, “Every animal has a behavioral trait that gives its identification away. Birders call it their ‘jizz.’ ”

I’m looking for ant jizz.

I wonder what kinds of search results will lead to me now…

Informative as that essay was, it wasn’t helpful. But I did find one picture on that site of what I see before it rains but the Sibley staff who put the site together couldn’t explain what causes it. Not that I’m saying this is a picture of an ant species’ jizz, but it is like what my ants make.

hole protection?

The darker dirt is kind of clumpy, like it was damp from the tunnels when it was added to the pile. Some of the piles are pathetically assembled and others might be piled up almost an inch high before the rain falls, although if they need it that high they don’t do it neatly either.

Then the rain falls and collapses most of them.

Oh, maybe that’s what the little blokes are doing. It’s a competition to see what ant team of workers can build the best one and the winners get all the best grub.

I’ve just reminded myself. I do have a picture of ants I can put in here. Back home, I always used to like tossing grass to a colony of ants that were two-toned. Black and red and quite large, compared to their cousins. They’d bite if they felt like it, but usually they were too busy working on their hill to pay any mind. They’d go a bit frantic when grass was tossed on them and hollar at their buddies down the hole to get more help nesting it. For years I enjoyed watching those guys work.

Then one year we were planning a family reunion and my uncle found their pile of twigs and, petrified that one of his little grandbabbies would eat a mouthful or get bitten and die a horrible painful death, he poured gasoline all over them and lit them on fire.

I was horrified, frankly. They weren’t hurting anything. They’d been in that spot for twenty years, at least. They had all the poplar trees they could climb and all the grasshoppers dumb enough to hop into their midst. Oh boy, could they go to town on a grasshopper…

For years after I looked around the yard every time I was home hoping to see if any survivors made a go of it and for years I never saw one. Then, last July Dad showed me where they wound up — by the pasture, near the poplars he’d planted by a slough. And their nest was far bigger than it had ever been before and they looked content, as far as ants can look anything, anyway.

As near as I can figure it, they’re called thatcher ants. Their jizz seems to be their utilization of small twigs in nest building which helps strengthen them, I guess. The nests can get quite huge and much of it is above ground instead of under.

thatcher ants at work

closer view of ant hill

Striped? Who knew?

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2 Responses to Rain’s coming

  1. daryl robson says:

    In Australia , ants carrying their larvae up posts of fences or hollow areas in sheds or in my case, up a post and into a hollow pipe top fence rail indicated to me ,some rain was coming in a couple of days. Sure enough, it rained. Then a day or two later, they would move back down the post carrying their young. The weather would then be fine until the ants where on the move again.This was my weather forecaster for 15 years. These where small black ants..

  2. Terry Smith says:

    Im in Australia as well, and for many years and particularly during the recent drought years of 2005-7 the observation of various types of ants and there uncanny ability to forecast an impending rain event fascinated me.. They would always build a wall mound around the entrance to there nest and this process would generally start 3-4 days before the rain event. Whats more my observation over 20-30 years has shown that the higher the mound the greater the rain event will be.
    Unfortunatly I have never taken a photo but perhaps I should..

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