Chapter 29: The Invasion of the Army Ants

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.

When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.

Army ants cross road

A trail of army ants snakes across a road outside of Gbarnga, Liberia. Large soldier ants provided guard duty… 

Even more than termites, driver or army ants are appropriate subjects for jungle bug horror stories. There’s a reason. These guys are ferocious.

My first experience with driver ants was when I came upon a line of them crossing a trail. At first glance they looked like any other group of respectable ants negotiating a path and minding their own business. On closer inspection, however, I found myself facing a tunnel of knife-sharp mandibles, each one wide open and wanting to crunch down on something. The big soldiers had linked their hind legs and were facing out, creating a tunnel for the other ants to crawl through.

Always up for a challenge, I took a stick and applied it to the middle of the line. Chomp! I pulled the stick back. The whole line of linked ants came along and a high-speed foot race commenced. I was both the finish line and first prize.

Or at least I was supposed to be. I gave the ants a free flying lesson. It’s possible they are still searching for their lost comrades.

Army ants are noted for their bite. In some parts of West Africa they are reputedly used as sutures. Once their jaws clamp shut, they are locked. I can attest to this since one managed to get at me through a hole in my tennis shoe. They are also noted for eating anything that can’t move fast enough to get out of their way. I watched as they gobbled down an unfortunate mouse. Their squeaking dinner simply disappeared under a sea of black.

Villagers clear out of their huts when the ants come to town. The ants go through, eat all of the bugs, mice, occasional snake and anything else alive, and then move on. It’s a good deal for the villagers and the ants. My attitude about our house being invaded wasn’t nearly as positive.

It all started on a quiet tropical evening. I was working my way through a James Bond novel, Jo was being good and preparing lesson plans, and Sam was glued to our phonograph, still trying to get Charlie off the MTA. Since bugs were such a central part of our lives, we normally ignored them. It was the hoard of tiny insects hopping and crawling under the screen door that caught our attention.

“Ants,” Sam said.

“No, Sam,” I said, assuming my teacher role, “these are not ants.” I was rewarded with an exasperated ‘I know that’ look from Sam.

“They are running away from ants that want to eat them,” he jumped in to interrupt any further explanations on my part. He was right, as usual. I turned on the porch light. Anything that could hop, crawl, walk or run was seeking sanctuary in our house. Behind them came the ants. They weren’t organized in a neat little line this time. They were spread out across our yard and coming on like a tsunami.

Jo and I held a hurried council of war. It was time to bring out the big gun, SHELLTOX.  Shelltox was one of those marvelous nerve gasses created by the pesticide industry that was so potent it was banned in the US even though this was still a time in America when DDT was considered as important to controlling six-legged life as butter was to making food taste good. The tiniest spurt of Shelltox and a cockroach rolled over and begin kicking its little legs in the air. We used it liberally.

Each of us armed with a can stomped off to war. The stomping was serious; it kept the ants off. Back and forth along the enemy line we marched, cans firing, filling the air with whatever odor Shell incorporated into its brew to let us know we were poisoning ourselves. The ants died by the hundreds and soon by the thousands. But still they came on. Our cans begin to sputter. Exiting stage left was rapidly becoming an option.

I pictured us packing up the cat and descending on the Peace Corps Rep like the ants had descended on us. First we would eat all of his food and then we would tackle his liquor closet. Unfortunately, the ants blinked first. Their buglers blew retreat. We had won the battle but the war was far from over.

That night, visions of monstrous ants visited me whenever I closed my eyes. Every hour we arose from bed to check if the attack had been renewed. Happily it hadn’t. By morning we were allowing ourselves to hope that the ants had figured out we were dangerous adversaries and moved on to easier targets. The ants had another plan. Mr. Bonal was wandering around outside so I went over to tell him our invasion story.

“Ah, let me show you something, Curtis,” he said. He walked me over to an old pile of mud bricks buried in the grass twenty feet away from our front porch. I looked down and all I could see was a moving black mass. The area was carpeted with a layer of driver ants several inches thick. There were zillions of them.

“Welcome to the ants’ home,” John explained. “They have moved in for the rainy season.”

The Bonals, it turned out, had been invaded the week before when Jo and I were in Monrovia. Again it had been a night attack but this time the ants made it into their house without discovery and found the baby. The baby, objecting strenuously to being a one-course meal, had started screaming. That brought the Bonals on the run. The baby was saved and the ants repulsed.

John assured me that the ants would be back to visit us again and again until they moved on.

I decided to remove the welcome mat. But first Jo and I had to restock our ordinance supplies. Off we went to town for umpteen cans of Shelltox, five gallons of kerosene, and a box of DDT. (Years later after I became a certified greenie and read Silent Spring, I would occasionally have twinges of guilt about the DDT.)

Our plan was to attack the home base with the kerosene, disorient the troops, destroy the barracks, and send the army packing. Of course there was a chance that the ‘packing’ would be toward our house rather than away from it. In that case, our first line of defense would be to mount an all out attack with Shelltox like we had before. As a fallback position, I scratched a narrow ditch around our house, translate that moat if you are romantically inclined, and filled it with DDT. The ants would have to crawl through the stuff to get at us.

Then I went to work. Reaching the nest without becoming ant food was the first challenge. Having grown up in red ant country, I remembered how sensitive ants are about their home territory. The slightest disturbance brings them boiling out of the ground in a blind rage. As a kid I used to pour water down their hole to watch the action.

The Apaches were reputed to have used the red ants’ proverbial ferocity as a means of torturing favored enemies.

I rightfully determined the driver ants were meaner, bigger and faster than their distant cousins. They would be on me and up the inside of my pants leg in a flash, a fate to be avoided at all costs.

The initial strategy of removing vegetation was relatively safe. Sam and I stood several feet away and tossed two gallons of kerosene on the nest. A carefully cast match created a raging inferno which proved quite effective in defoliating the area.

Burning out army ants

The first part of the campaign was to burn the vegetation away from where the ants lived. Two gallons of kerosene did the trick. Sam helped me while two neighborhood boys looked on. Gboveh High School is up the hill.

Digging into the nest was much more dangerous; I would be operating behind enemy lines facing thousands of steel jawed troops on a hunt and destroy mission. My solution was to draft a galvanized steel tub Jo and I had used for bathing at our first house. It provided ample standing room and the ants couldn’t crawl up the side. I tossed the tub next to the nest and leapt in.

Sam tossed me our shovel. Several minutes of dedicated digging brought me to the mother of all nurseries. Eggs covered an area at least three feet across and several inches deep. Right in the middle was a finger sized, bright orange snake.

“Very poisonous,” Sam said. I figured it had to be pure poison for the ants to leave it alone. We decided to take a break and let the ants and the snake work out their relationship.

After our standard lunch of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich washed down by orange Kool Aid, we went out to check the results of our handiwork. Success! Long lines of ants, many dragging eggs, stretched off into the distance away from our house. The siege was over. There was no sign of the snake, by the way. Maybe the ants had stopped for lunch as well.

4 comments on “Chapter 29: The Invasion of the Army Ants

  1. This was so wonderfully written! You felt as if you had to check your own pants… 🙂 I remember watching parts of an old Technicolor movie with Charleton Heston fighting army ants… but indeed, the two of you were nuts…I mean, courageous!

  2. This made me think of that old song “High Hopes” and the ant moving the rubber tree plant. Sounds like these guys would just eat it! Another wonderfully descriptive post, Curt. Looking forward to the next!

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