Magnetic Island North Queensland
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A young koala's beach adventure

February 13th 2011
The green ant "moment"

A green ant nest Cyclone Yasi has certainly made an impact locally and while most of us have been cleaning up others have been inspired by the event to put finger to keyboard and send us their own story. The following, from Islander Helen Foulkes, focusses on a small but very significant aspect of life in the tropics around the time of cyclones.

The green ant "moment"

According to an island park ranger, during cyclone Yasi the green ants had their Ďmomentí. Significant moment? Big moment? Iím not sure but we all knew it as their little jaws dug into every crevice on our bodies that they could reach.

As you probably know green ants are the ones that make those amazing bulb like nests by sticking leaves together Ė very resilient nests too given the number that you can see still stuck together long after they have been abandoned.

Green ants are highly territorial and colonies can have up to 100,000 over a dozen trees. They defend their territories very aggressively with some ants' only job being to protect against intruders. They defend their territories by biting invaders, not stinging, biting. And then to make it really hurt they spray formic acid directly at the bite wound. They donít just bite us though, they bite anything that comes near their nests including spiders, birds and snakes.

Cyclone Yasi as a category 5 headed for North Queensland on February 2nd this year. The green ants knowing this, banded together to survive. Survival in a natural disaster is what we all wish for. We had plenty of warning of Yasi and time to prepare especially given that it was proceeded by cyclone Anthony.

Most of the fun for me has gone out of weather. Today we get 5 day forecasts, internet access to satellite pictures of the world and itís cloud masses, rain activity, isobars, isotherms, all in colour. On our computers and on our phones. Available all the time everywhere we go. Personally I am a bit weathered out but when Anthony was approaching the green ants didnít have to go to the BOM web site, they just knew.

I had a column of ants at my house move home on the Sunday afternoon before Anthony. Tens of hundreds of them moved out of my 1950s kitchen; marched up the door jam, over the power line that joins my house to my rustic outdoor bathroom, down the bathroom wall, along the concrete floor carrying what they could under the brick into the backyard. I pointed this out to my friend Shane and he pointed out that the protected ants in the middle of the marching columns were carrying the eggs. No longer was my kitchen a place of refuge and yummy missed bench scraps.

Cyclone Anthony came and went here on Maggie Island without so much as a whisper but the ants knew that something else was coming. No news bulletin needed to let them know. Some of the ants chose to escape Ė ďletís fly out to anywhere!Ē they said to each other. A bit like the folk in North Queensland who flew south or drove away, hoping to protect their families and themselves.

Others stayed though and as they stayed the nest was protected with extra leaves. They started to feel bad, bad in a way that caused tension amongst the colony and made them wish that they had left like the other ants. But they did what they could to prepare and told themselves they were going to be okay.

The problem was that no-one told the broadcasting ants, whose cries of imminent disaster got louder and more persistent. It was their job to warn the ant colony and they did it over and over. The other ants drove themselves into a frenzy, even knowing they had done all they could. They just wanted it all to be over.

As the day progressed the ants all headed to safe ground, made sure their neighbouring ants were okay and just waited. And waited.

By 10pm on Magnetic Island, each of the local 'ants' were feeling different things. Some cried, some yelled at their loved ones, others watched the horizontal rain hitting their neighbours . They were all tense.

When the long anticipated moment arrived some, like this green ant, fell asleep. What bliss Ė no worries until the noise of the wind and rain exploded them awake. They tried to breath slowly, they tried not to panic, they thought of other ants nearby and hoped they were okay. Some slept on.

But the winds of Yasi reached record levels and the roofs of the ants nests flipped off and the trees bent down and the nests were all but destroyed. The ants were scared and now the ant network was not working and everyone was on their own.

When daylight appeared the humans started to move. They hugged each other and thanked their gods for having made it through. They slowly took count and made sure that everyone they loved and everything they cherished was still in one piece. They counted their blessings for all that they were given. But the ants whose homes had been destroyed didít know where to go.

So they bit. They jumped onto anything that moved. They searched out any crevice available especially if it was a humanís warm place between their toes or knees or neck. Because the humans were trying to walk around to access the damage to their homes and gardens and pools. The relentless green ants bit on. They bit us every chance that they got, sweeping the paths and driveways, picking up the branches and piling them on the street, you only had to stop for a moment and the green ants found you.

Green ants, like us humans, donít just need to survive, they need to feel safe. And they are relentless in their protection of their families and homes. Arenít we all the same?

Story: Helen Foulkes
Photo: George Hirst

To add your comment,
or read those of others, see below

The green ant
Jenny Stirling
February 13th 2011
I too had ants every where prior to the cyclones but not Green Ants. They did the right thing by me and stayed put in the mango trees which did very well in the cyclone compared to other trees. No my painful moment was with paper wasps which decamped on to the fascia boards of the house. $120 later they were gone. PS no good trying to get rid of them in the day- too angry. Leave it till the evening.
Lucie de Monchaux
February 13th 2011
A great story, what happens next with the green ants?
February 13th 2011
Great story Helen! Green ants were also rampant in Picnic and did an excellent job of protecting themselves! I will happily swap todays influx of hairy caterpillars for the green ants though!
pamela chambers
February 13th 2011
At 6am post Yasi morning, we ventured outside to take a look not sure what to expect. being at the Hideaway wih lots of trees down and leaves on the ground over 3 inches thick, un beknown to us, those nasty little green ants were angry and lost. with our thongs on, we didn't know and they ran up our legs and did their biting. so bad even got into the car and covered the house. in a frenzy and mad. needless to say, I went back into my house, just awaiting hopeing they would eventually build their nests again, off the ground. I remember when I first moved to the island 8 years ago and didnt know what they were. I soon found out after backing into a nest trying to avoid a spider web in my garden. The green ants attacked me and I jumped into my pool with all my clothes on and learned from this stay clear of them. they hurt and bite and i still have scars on my body from those little suckers.
Sylvia Hayes
February 13th 2011
I learned the hard way to leave the broken branches alone till they were brown!I'd like to heartily thank those SES volunteers and the clean up crew who visited my yard one week later and STILL got stung by green ants, because they removed large broken tree limbs. Above and beyond the call...
February 14th 2011
We too have a colony of paper wasps under the eaves...Jenny, How did you get rid of them!
February 15th 2011
Stacey, I've not been troubled with paper wasps, I've had them build nests under my eaves too. As long as you don't accidentally run into their hanging nests they seem to mind their own business and do their wasp thing without bothering us humans.
pamela chambers
February 16th 2011
oh by the way, I had a couple from the UK inspecting a home to buy on the island a few years ago. and they loved the garden. they saw the big green ant nest in the bush and thought it to be a huge flower ready to bloom.!!! with the little green creatures helping to open the flower. The started to "smell" the so called flower (they thought) and I warned them immediately and they jumped back in a rush never forgetting the fright. no blooming flower!!! only a nest I told them and watch out. they bite!!! you should have seen the look on the UK visitors faces. and and thought the ants were there to help the flower bloom...needless to say they didn't buy the property...wonder why?
Sylvia Hayes
February 18th 2011
Haha, Pamela, that reminds me of a story about an English friend who invited me over for coffee years ago. She pointed out a tall eucalypt in her back garden, saying, "That tree is dying and my hubby's going to cut it down." When I looked confused, she said, "It's really sick! Look at all the bark peeling off!" True story!!!

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