Heard the One About the Elephant and the Ant?

Jack Prot

Did you know that there is an ant colony that lives on three continents? Seriously. There is a colony of Argentine ants that has spread to Europe and Japan, of course with some help from people. One colony spreads over 6 000 km (3 700 miles) along the Mediterranean coast. The second one extends over 900 km (560 miles) in California in the US. The third colony is in Japan. Researchers discovered that these ant colonies share a very similar of hydrocarbons in their cuticles, and they are in fact members of the same colony.

Here is the interesting part. Put ants from different colonies together and they become aggressive. Put ants from these three different colonies together, and they act like old friends. They are never aggressive towards another, and they never avoid one another. They recognize each other on the basis of the chemical composition of their cuticles.

How many families can associate with this? How many families are spread across the world and feel such strong familial bonds that they will recognize and support their relatives wherever they find them? Make the circle even closer. How many nuclear families live in the same country and find it difficult to keep contact with each other? It is even more tragic when a family live in the same town and manage to erect artificial boundaries to keep away from each other. Maybe we can learn from these ants and re-assess our own family bonds.

Do they not contact me because I do not contact them? Do I not contact them because they do not contact me? When you point a finger to them, see how many fingers point right back to you. It is interesting that whenever you have trouble with various family members, you are the common denominator in all those difficulties. And close physical contact is not the only way to keep family bonds strong. Simply thinking of people with love, wherever they are in the world, is already a step in the right direction.

Another interesting fact about ants is that they understand when we talk to them. Yes, I thought the same when I first heard that. I was told that when you have ants in your house, you can let them leave by talking to them. You use your finger to draw a line where you see the ants, and you simply tell them that it is time for them to leave because they are in danger if they stay. I tried that, and it actually worked – in two different houses, and with two different groups of ants.

And then there is the interesting fact that elephants are very afraid of bees. At first glance you would think this is probably an urban myth. There is no way a bee can scare an elephant or get through the thick skin of an elephant, right? An elephant skin is about 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick and there is no way that a bee’s sting can penetrate that, right? Right. But the elephant’s skin is as thin as paper behind the ears, by the eye, on the abdomen, chest and shoulders. And can you imagine how a bee sting could hurt in an elephant’s trunk when they have no way to remove that tiny sting once it is nestled in the elephant’s trunk.

Bees seem to know that, and elephants have discovered this the hard way. Elephants have learnt to stay very far away from bees. An elephant will never eat from a tree that has a bee colony in it – they would not even go near the tree. The elephants can smell bee hives (even empty hives) from a distance and will do anything to avoid the hives.

What probably adds to the fear of the elephants is that when a bee stings, it releases alarm pheromones. When this happens, other bees in the area are attracted and they continue the attack. And getting under water to fool the bees only helps while you are under water. When you surface, the bees will smell the pheromones again and continue with their attack.

Farmers in Kenia are using this fear of bees to control elephants and protect their crops. The farmers had in the past lost many crops through marauding elephants. In recent years, the farmers simply put empty bee-hives at a distance of a few feet apart around their fields. They discovered that the elephants will not even come near enough the fields to confirm that the bee hives are empty.

So, even the mighty elephant has its weak spots and its own fears. I wish I had known that when I had to deal with corporate elephants and others who walked over me when I was emotionally vulnerable. An old dog is never too old to learn new tricks.

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