Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/April 1880/A Living Honeycomb


MUCH as has been written about the marvels of instinct, there are still discoveries of great interest to be made in this prolific field. Particularly in the domain of those insect Yankees, the ants, with their wonderful ingenuity and human-like manners and customs, there is room for extended observations.

Some lately discovered facts in relation to them are so curious and interesting that it may be advisable to give them greater publicity than they have yet obtained. Some of these facts have long been known to the world of science, but not to the public. Others are new discoveries. As a whole they form one of the most surprising chapters in the history of animal life and contrivance.

Varied as are the social habits of the ants, it is generally considered that social bees surpass them in one particular, namely, their mode of storing supplies of winter food, the storehouses of ant-food having no contrivance similar in ingenuity to the honeycomb, with its rich supply of the sweets of life.

But the truth is that certain tribes of ants are well aware of the value of nature's sweetmeats as articles of food, and have developed a mode of storing up their winter honey still more curious than that practiced by the bees. They possess, in fact, what may be called living honeycombs; perambulatory cells filled with distilled sweetness. We refer to the honey-bearing ants of New Mexico, concerning which some very interesting facts have been brought to light during the past summer.

The Rev. Dr. McCook, of Philadelphia, a noted observer of ants and ant-life, has been interviewing these honey-bearers, and his results differ so widely from the ordinary facts of insect instinct that they can not but prove of general interest. These ants had been previously known only in New Mexico, but he discovered them in Colorado, inhabiting the locality known as the "Garden of the Gods," their nests being excavated in the stony crests of low ridges which run through this mountain-girt paradise.

The ridges are composed of a friable sandstone, into which our minute masons mine deeply, digging galleries which sometimes run for several feet into the rock. The nest, outwardly, is some ten inches in diameter by from two to three and a half inches in height, composed of sand and bits of stone carried from within, some of which seem large enough to defy a regiment of ants to move them.

Inside the nests successive chambers are excavated, connected by galleries, the floors of the chambers being comparatively smooth, while the ceilings are left in a rough state. But this roughness is no evidence of carelessness in the builder. It has, on the contrary, an important object: this is to furnish foothold for the clinging feet of certain extraordinary-looking creatures, which form the living honeycombs of which we have spoken.

Fancy an animal with the head and thorax of a small ant, but with all the posterior portion of the body converted into a round sac, of the size of a large pea, and of a rich translucent amber hue—it being, in fact, distended into a reservoir of honey. This honey-bag is immense when compared with the size of the ant, the unchanged parts of which might pass for a black pin's head attached to the side of a marrowfat pea. These odd-looking creatures cling to the roof of the chamber with their feet, the distended honey-bag hanging downward like an amber globe. On seeing them we instinctively imagine that their leg muscles must be developed in a fashion to put to shame those of human athletes, since it is no light weight which they are thus forced to continuously support.

In each chamber of the nest about thirty honey-bearers are found, making some three hundred to the complete nest. Besides these there are hundreds or thousands of others, workers and soldiers, lords and queens, to whom the honey-bearers serve as storehouses of winter food.

Dr. McCook succeeded in bringing some of these home with him alive, providing them with nest-building materials, and with sugar for nutriment. He has one very interesting nest in a glass bottle, with its interior chamber well displayed. The roof of this is covered with depending globules of honey, so large as almost to conceal the minute clinging insect of which they really form a part.

But the marvelous feature of the case yet remains to be described. Not only is the abdomen of the ant converted into a receptacle for honey, but the whole internal economy of the body is transformed for this purpose. All the organs of the abdomen have quite disappeared: viscera, nerves, veins, arteries, have alike vanished; and there remains only a thin, transparent skin, which is capable of great distention. It is thus in reality a honey-cell, and much stranger than that of the bee, the waxen walls of the latter being replaced in this case by the tissues of a living animal. The creature can afford to dispense with the abdominal organs; since its life-duties are so metamorphosed that it has henceforth to act only as an animated sweetmeat.

Dr. McCook's observations enabled him to discover that the working ants, returning from their out-door foraging, with their bodies distended with the honey they have somewhere harvested, enter the chambers of the nest and eject this sweet fluid from their own mouths into the mouths of the honey-bearers, whose bodies become greatly distended with the delicious food. In other oases he perceived hungry ants seeking for a meal from the food thus generously stored up. The honey-bearer seemed to slightly contract the muscles of the abdominal skin, forcing from its mouth minute globules of honey: these clung to the hairs of the under lip, and were eagerly lapped up by the hungry ants waiting to be fed. It is probable, however, that these supplies are principally intended as winter stores for the workers, for the feeding of the larvæ, and for the dinner-table of the queen, who is, as usual, too proud or too dignified to do her own foraging.

The working ants take great care of their helpless honey-bearers. When one, through some convulsion of nature—occasioned perhaps by the tap of a gigantic human finger—looses its hold and drops to the floor of its chamber, it is at once picked up by a worker, and carried back to its old foothold on the roof of the apartment. How this minute creature can drag up a perpendicular wall a mass twenty times its own size and weight is only less surprising than it would be to see an adroit climber of the human race ascending the face of a precipice and pulling after him a ton weight.

With regard to the source of the honey, these ants are not known to feast on flowers, like bees and some of our home ants, nor could any evidence be found of the presence of the Aphis, or ant-cow, which many of our ants milk for its honey.

The honey-gatherer is difficult to observe. It is a nocturnal ant, keeping out of sight of the sun during the day, and only venturing forth at nightfall in search of food. Dr. McCook observed them, in the summer twilight, marching outward from the nest in long columns, and pursuing night after night the same paths. He watched them for a considerable time before he succeeded in finding the goal of these nightly expeditions. At length, discovering some ants on the twigs of a species of scrub-oak, which grew abundantly at the foot of the ridge, he observed that they showed a marked preference for certain small oak-galls which were ranged along the sides of the twigs.

The next thing to be done was to examine these galls. We are accustomed to associate galls with the idea of bitterness only, yet they proved to be the true honey-yielders. On the round, green masses minute drops of a sweet juice were found: this the ants eagerly licked up, passing from gall to gall until fully laden, or returning to the original gall at a later hour when fresh sweetness had exuded from it.

The gall-nut, it is well known, is an excrescence upon the leaves of a species of oak; it is produced by the puncture of a small hymenopterous insect for the purpose of depositing its eggs. A minute grub lies in the center of the soft mass which composes the gall. Whether the sweet juice came from this grub, or from the sap of the tree, was not readily to be discovered, though it was most likely an exudation of the sap.

All night the busy gatherers of sweets were occupied in collecting honey from the galls. Toward morning they were seen in great numbers returning to the nest, their bodies swollen with the night's harvest of honey, which, as we have said, is given to the living honeycombs within, being forced from the bodies of the workers and into the mouths of the honey-bearers, until, by the time the season is over, they present a remarkable distention.

This is about all that is known at present concerning the habits of these strange ants. They very likely have other sources of honey at other seasons; but the most interesting fact is the surprising mode of storage of this sweet food.

In New Mexico the inhabitants put these ants to a very peculiar use, supplementing their dinners with a plateful of honey-ants for dessert. The overladen insects wait in enforced patience while the preceding courses of the dinner are being eaten. The mode of partaking of this strange dessert is to pick up an ant, nip the honey-bag with the teeth, forcing its sweet contents into the mouth, while the remainder is thrown away. We are told that this is not so disagreeable a habit as it might at first sight seem, the skin surrounding the honey being reduced to a thin, transparent membrane, with nothing necessarily unpleasant in its character. Nevertheless, most of us will prefer to continue indebted to the bee for our supply of honey, leaving the ants to enjoy the fruits of their own labors.—Journal of Science.