Have you ever noticed the way that ants meander like drunks kissing everyone they meet? I was watching the ant super-highway in my garden which linked their tower block residence; my old chimney pot, with their place of work; the compost bin. None of them ever walked in a straight line, so they have clearly never studied physics. Despite the wobble, their route was pretty well established and included a deep ravine where the concrete had come away from the stone slabs. I decided to help them out by placing a lolly stick across the gulley, but this just confused them totally and even when I took it away they all walked round in circles when they reached this point. I suppose that my actions obliterated their scent trail and it took a while for them to restore their GPS.
I took care when watering the plants to lift the hose over this causeway, but one evening I accidentally trod on a commuter ant. Well a few of them actually; they lay flat to the ground when I lifted my foot, but most were just faking it and soon went on their way. One particular ant was struggling though and I immediately felt regretful at my carelessness. I watched him for a while move his front legs round in circles while his rear end stayed stuck to the ground. Concerned, I gently picked him up with a leaf and put him in the palm of my hand. His front legs were fine but the back legs, all four of them, were folded under his body. As I watched, wondering whether euthanasia should be an option; rather like a cartoon character who had been flattened by an anvil, he slowly cranked up one leg after the other until he was running around my hand on all six, wondering how he got there. So before you step on them again, just remember that flat ants can bounce back given half the chance.
In fact quite a few insects can recover from a confused state if we just give them the opportunity to do so. I found a hoverfly sitting on the kitchen chair last week. When I put my hand out to him he crawled up onto it instead of flying away, so I knew he was sickening for something. I’ve heard that if a wild creature allows you to pick it up then it is already 70% dead, but I decided to see if I could use the other 30% to restore him. I put some sugar water on my finger and immediately his proboscis came down as he started to feed. I was concerned that he would fly off into the house and die on a hidden windowsill somewhere, so I put him outside on the garden table. He immediately started doing the backstroke in a pool of rain water, but I thought that he wasn’t up to such strenuous activity just yet and fished him out. I put him in the hanging basket planter by the back door for a period of recovery. As I watched, he promptly curled up into the dead hoverfly position with all six legs folded into his body. I knew swimming so soon after sickness wasn’t a good idea. I had to leave him then and go off to work, but a few hours later when I got home I checked the hanging basket expecting to see him there still in his comatose position. To my surprise he had gone. Recovered and flown away or eaten by an opportunist bird? I like to think the former.
Bees too are capable of great feats of recovery. The trouble with bees is that flying takes a great deal of energy and they need to keep up their body temperatures in order to fly. If they run out of fuel they just crash land somewhere and walk round in circles in a perturbed manner. You have probably seen bees doing just this type of thing. You may have trodden on them in a misplaced act of compassion. Last summer I found a large bumblebee doing circles of eight on the pavement as I walked back from the shops. He was at serious risk of imminent death as very few people look where their feet are going. Without too much difficulty I persuaded him to walk onto a tissue and I carried him round the corner to my house. I put the patient down on the table and gave him some warm, sugar water. I sat on the chair and watched his long proboscis hungrily drink up the liquid. After a while he had a bit of a wash with his front legs and took a few warm up buzzes with his wings. He seemed quite happy dipping into his nectar substitute, so I left him to it and went back into the house to put the shopping away. When I came out again, a few minutes later, it was just in time to see him fly off with perfect control of all his navigational system
Of course the best way to nurture bees and other pollinators is to provide nectar rich plants. It is estimated that gardens account for over 1,000,000 hectares of land in the U.K. If more of us gardeners provided a bee friendly environment, it could make a significant difference to the pollinator population. Most hybrid flowers are produced to provide colour and longevity, but in the process they have either lost their nectar or it has become inaccessible. Bees do not appreciate a well manicured lawn and would be far happier romping among wild clover, buttercups and dandelions. So put that lawn mower away and have another gin and tonic as you watch your bee friendly garden mature into a nectar rich haven.
If you want to be more proactive, you can go to your local garden centre and look for plants with a bee friendly logo, or you can buy some straight from the internet. I found a site called ‘rosybee’ where you can obtain pollinator friendly plants at the click of a mouse and no need to understand Latin. Once my plug plants arrive I also intend to sprinkle out some wild clover which will hopefully grow vigorously year after year.
So, before you pour hot water over the next ant nest you find, wiping out a community more highly organised than any mankind has ever managed, or tread on a distressed bee that is just in need of a bit of T.L.C. bear in mind that should all insects vanish from the face of the earth our environment would collapse into chaos. Insects provide the important duel roles of pollinator and waste recycle operative. The ants in my compost heap, having scaled the equivalent of Mount Everest are busy sorting through my unwanted debris. I have no problem with the ants making use of my waste products or taking up occupancy in my old chimney pot. If I find a stray forager in the kitchen, I simply pick him up with some kitchen towel and put him back in the garden with a message for the colony that indoors is a no-go zone. I don’t kill them, after all the foragers are promoted worker ants and consequently the O.A.P’s of the ant community; they deserve a bit of respect from all of us.
For more information on ants check out these two sites.