Works in the Herald 1935

Lately I have been reading a book by a German entomologist whose special study is the Ant. I remember that I bought the book many years ago because at the time, and for a long time previously, I, too, had been very interested in ants. But my interest had waned rather suddenly when the ants in turn began to take altogether too much interest in me. And their interest, though unmistakably keen, was of a character neither scientific nor friendly.

I gather that the German gentleman of whom I write, during a brief visit to Australia, underwent an experience that was almost equally as painful as my own and equally destructive of scientific enthusiasm.

He had travelled over most of the habitable globe, and in many remote places, such as Peru, Mexico and the African interior, making a patient, close and intensive study of various species as he want. And what he has to say of some of these is of absorbing interest. It reads, indeed, more like some fantastic fair tale of fabled, semi-human beasts rather than a serious treatise upon a tiny creature well known to every one of us in some form or other.

He tells, for example, of the terrible Wandering Ant of Mexico, that travels in vast cohorts and companies many millions strong, leaving in its wake no living thing nor any trace or scrap of organic matter. The passing of these horrible, blind, squeaking little monsters is like the march in inexorable doom: mice, lizards, snakes, frogs, such as fail to escape in time, are stripped to the bone in an incredibly short time; beetles, worms, and all crawling things are absorbed in passing, and even small tree-dwellers, unequipped with wings, are inevitable victims.

Cutting a destructive swathe many yards wide, the murderous horde passes on, ever on the move, and carrying with it an appropriate and disgusting odor of death and decay.

Not a pretty tale, nor a scene easy to witness, but the German scientist has somehow found it possible to observe closely and describe it all in meticulous detail.

So he tells also and at some length of other tribes: of the Slave Raiding Ant, of the Cattle Owners, of the Mushroom Growers, the Weavers, the Masons and the Soldier Ants. And in each of these cases his observation has been keen to the smallest detail.

But our author's remarks upon the ants of Australia, though poignant, are disappointingly brief and unilluminating from a scientific point of view. Apparently he visited these shores still full of enthusiasm for his study and hied forth blithely one summer evening, armed with spade and trowel, to dig up a nest of Bulldog Ants.

Evidently the intelligent creatures sensed his intention; for, several feet from the nest, they met him with more ardor than hospitality. Before he had time to drop his tools and flee, he was stung in a dozen places, so severely that his interest in Bulldog Ants rapidly waned.

Next, and rather unfortunately, he sought the acquaintance of my own special bete noir, The Jumper Ant.

Those who have had experience with the Jumper that mite of enormity, twice as aggressive and thrice as poisonous as his cousin, the Bulldog, might have told the German savant what to expect. Seemingly he did not expect it, but he got it, so swiftly and savagely that the sum of his remarks on the ants of Australia is compressed in one terse but unmistakably sincere howl of agony so expressively illuminating that, even in the English translation it is just barely publishable. In the original German, I should imagine, it sounds even more savagely vindictive and to the point.

Apparently the mortally offended savant gave up his research immediately and caught the next boat from these inhospitable shores, thereafter losing all interest in the merry little Australia emmet.

Herald, 9 January 1935, p6

Copyright © Perry Middlemiss 2005