[To understand the full story, be sure to check out part 1 and part 2.]
General Myrmex had never witnessed this much chaos and dismay within her colony before. Their queen had just died. The Great Acacia tree was sick and thus producing less food. The larva chamber was short on food supplies to feed the ant larvae. A nearby ant colony kept knocking on their doors, threatening to invade and take over the Great Acacia tree. The responsibility to fix everything and make things right comes with the title “general.” The mounting pressure was enough to squish an ordinary ant, but not Myrmex, the general of the great ferruginea ant colony. The recent chaos can be traced back to one question: how did the Great Acacia tree get sick in the first place? Myrmex gathered her best soldiers to launch an immediate investigation to solve this mystery.
Besides the melancholy mood that hung over the now queen-less colony, there were only a couple of things out of the ordinary around the Great Acacia tree that morning.
First, male ants fluttered about in eager anticipation for the new queen to take flight. The life-long purpose of male ants is to add their genetic code to the vast gene pool of a queen. To do this, they hover in groups, awaiting the chance to mate with the queen as she flies by during her ‘nuptial flight.’ Upon returning from her romantic flight, the queen then uses the sperm she collected from many different male ants to create thousands of new ants, thus continuing to build the colony. With the old queen dead, the new queen is set to take off soon in order to revive and rebuild the Great Acacia tree’s ant colony.
Second, the spider mimic’s webbing still clung to many leaves and branches. Even though the general and her troops tracked down the ant-mimicking spider and killed it, it’s webbing still looked fresh as it draped over branches and was caked over leaf bundles. Could the spider’s web somehow be draining the Great Acacia tree of energy? Or had more spiders crept their way into the colony? Either way, Myrmex decided to start the investigation with the webbing.
The general and her investigation team approached a nearby branch covered in spider silk. Myrmex tracked the webbing as it wound it’s way around the branch and groupings of leaves. There were no signs of spider hairs or damage anywhere. The silk felt fresh, but it was obvious that no spider had been in this area recently. Plus, if the spider was here at some point, it did not leave the tell-tale drag line that it uses to drift off of the tree. Just then, as Myrmex was peering off the edge of the branch in search of drag lines, she noticed the silk start to rumble.
From the underside of the branch jumped a large, brown spider. This spider was much bigger and hairier than the mimic from before. The spider lunged toward the general, gobbling up a soldier ant in the process. Also unlike the mimic, this arachnid preferred meat.
Myrmex used her antennae to point on top of the spider’s back, signaling her team to climb up the spider to gain an advantage. They used their size and speed to dodge another attack and scurry up the spider’s back. The spider shook vigorously, trying to shake the ants free, but the ants clung to its coarse hair easily maintaining a firm grip. Frustration overtook the spider and it began to rampage across the branch, knocking over ants and beltian bodies in the process. Myrmex needed a new plan to slow down its path of destruction.
Through a series of antenna rubs and foot stomps, she outlined her plan with her team. She squirted pheromones along a few of the joints between the spider’s legs and thorax. She then signaled to a member of her team, the decoy, to drop down. The faithful soldier ant jumped off directly in the path of the rampaging spider. Just as the spider lunged toward the decoy ant, Myrmex and the rest of her team chewed off one leg of the spider at the thorax joint. This sent the spider careening, narrowly missing the decoy ant. Myrmex sent down another decoy ant and just as the frustrated spider lashed out towards the new decoy, her team gnawed off a couple more legs on the other side of the thorax. This caused the giant spider to miss the decoy entirely and topple off the branch. Myrmex and her team scrambled off the spider just before it fell to its grave at the base of the Great Acacia Tree.
Convinced that the web-wrapped leaves was caused by these giant hairy spiders, Myrmex was just about to send out an executive order for the whole army to search and kill all similar spiders near the tree when she spotted movement out of the corner of her eyes. Alarmed from the ruckus that occurred outside its silken home, a white worm emerged from the web-covered leaves. Myrmex and her team rushed over to investigate.
After exterminating the worm invader, Myrmex cut through the silk and searched the worm’s home. To her surprise, the invader had chewed through the Great Acacia Tree, creating tunnels that led through the branches of the tree. The Polyhymno larva acts as a parasite, hiding inside the host tree and feeding off its host until it’s ready for metamorphosis. This was why the tree had become mysteriously ill. Had these larvae gone unchecked, the tree’s health would have continued to decline, eventually leading to lots of white and black striped Polyhymno moths bursting triumphantly from the leaves and branches of its innocent and dieing host. But not on the general’s watch. She sent a quick extermination order of all Polyhymno moth larvae on the tree.
Midway through the worm extermination, an urgent pheromone signal was sent throughout the tree. It was a signal to gather at the Queen’s chamber at once. At last, Myrmex thought, the new queen had returned from her flight ready to re-establish the colony.
When Myrmex reached the Queen’s chambers, she saw the new Queen standing outside her chambers. The smell of the Queen’s pheromones within a colony never changes. Thus, the pheromones are an obvious sign that this was the new queen of the any colony. Myrmex was slightly confused, the queen looked similar to other ferruginea ants but slightly different from what she remembered. Confusion turned to anger as she saw leafcutter ants, the same ones her army fought just days ago, standing loyally by the Queen’s side. Was the queen confused? Surely she needed to be warned that these ants were not their friends.
But the Queen’s pheromone message was clear, “My loyal subjects, I have just returned from my flight and I am ready to replenish and strengthen this Great Acacia Tree colony. But these poor leafcutter ants have recently lost their homes and they are willing to submit peacefully to our orders and help us grow as a colony.”
Had the new queen lost her mind?! Even though the pheromone signature was clearly that of their queen’s, Myrmex was about to protest. But just then, the Queen sent out a new order. One that Myrmex was not ready for. “General Myrmex, you have been officially relieved of your duties as general.”
Thank you for reading my first installation of my short fiction story “The Battle for the Great Acacia.” If you enjoyed reading it, or if you have any questions, drop me a comment. I would love to hear about your reading experience! Stay tuned for the part 4 of this story within the next month.
*Sources I used to gain knowledge for this post:
Polyhymno moth larvae: Eubanks, Micky D., et al. “The Exploitation of an Ant-Defended Host Plant by a Shelter-Building Herbivore.” Oecologia, vol. 109, no. 3, 1997, pp. 454–460. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4221543. Accessed 2 Jan. 2021.
Slavemaking Ants: https://projects.ncsu.edu/cals/course/ent525/close/SlaveAnt.html