Thailand is in the tropics, and in the tropics we share the good weather with nature’s most aggressive pests. While I grant that every creature has a place in the natural food chain, there is one set of critters that I simply do not like: Ants. And I especially don’t like these critters when they like me.
If it were just one ant, I probably wouldn’t mind, but ants like to have lots of friends and colleagues, so when they attack it can be a total blitzkrieg on my body. And, no, before you ask, I don’t suffer from Myrmecophobia (fear of ants), and I think my hesitation and slight fear is because of my healthy respect for the great capabilities of these ant armies.
Because of the wonderful environment of Thailand (they apparently like the weather as much as I do) there are many varieties of ants that populate the country. Most of these varieties are relatively harmless to my body other than being pesky, but there are two varieties people should be aware of, especially if they out in the country-side. These are the Weaver Ants and the Red Tropical Fire Ants. Both of them can bite you, but they don’t seek you out; they bite you in swarms as a matter of their perceived protection.
Fire Ants, mod-kun-fai in Thai, are one of the most venomous insects in Thailand, and are found in most warm tropical areas of the world, including the Southeast USA. They are small measuring between one-tenth and one-fourth of an inch in size and are a reddish brown to orange. They build colonies on the ground that are about 15 inches in diameter, and can be about 10 inches high. It is possible to be walking along in an area with a lot
of vegetation (like everywhere in Thailand) and step right into one of these mounds. That’s when you have a problem. Thousands of them (but it seems more like millions) will be up your legs in seconds, all biting. They can bite as many times as they like and will inject a venom into you each time. These tiny monsters can engulf a whole human body in about 15 seconds.
If you are camping out in the semi-wild it is possible to encounter these guys as you are making camp. What gets them going is a disturbance to their home or next to it. They also might make a home in your backyard. If this is the case, you can try eradication by poisons, explosions and such, but a better solution may be to talk with some of the local Thai people. Even though these Fire Ants would be regarded as something we can all do without, many Thai people love to find them to take the eggs from Fire Ants. These are used as a condiment, as a soup and also as fish bait (Yea, who would believe it, but it’s true). You could find some Thai people eager to take the whole colony out of your yard to take home.
But in normal living and getting around the Thai countryside, expats and visitors better watch where they walk and stand, or it can be a real pain. It can ruin a vacation for sure to have to visit a doctor for treatment. (Note: while it can be a real pain and terrible discomfort, there are few deaths from Fire Ants, which have been estimated to be around 10 worldwide per year).
There is a similar red fire ant that has a different habitat. These ants are notorious for crawling into a person’s bed in their home and biting in the night while the person sleeps. These bites can hurt initially, but will go away after a couple of hours, and can cause some discomfort, but nothing too serious. These are the fire ants that are more common in the Southeast USA than the other ants in the bush, and Thailand is home them as well.
The other very cantankerous ant variety that can cause problems for us people are the Weaver Ants. These critters like to make their colonies in leafy bushes. They excrete a silk like material that works as a sort of glue to connect fresh leaves together making a “ball” of leaves stuck together about the size of a bowling ball. Their colonies are often fairly high up in order to avoid some predators, and they won’t attack you unless you rub up against their colony and shake it a bit. But if you do that, you will be quite surprised how agitated they become so quickly. In seconds you will see hundreds or thousands of them (but it seems like millions) go crazy and immediately start biting you. Their bite is not venomous, but it is painful, and when you have billions and billions of these guys (OK, maybe only hundreds, but it seems like more), you will have a lot of pain. They also have a chemical irritant added to the bite to make the it felt longer.
The Weaver Ants are bigger than the Fire Ants, being what I would call a “normal sized” ant, and they are a light brown color.
One of the keys to our protection is to leave the nests undisturbed. They do relocate after a few months, so if they are in the tree in your yard, they will go away. The Weaver Ants prefer nectar from the fruit trees, and they also eat other smaller insects. If you have many fruit trees like a small orchard, you may have many of these colonies. One trick that is done by some professional orchards is to string a small rope connecting the trees, and then the ants will travel to different trees via the rope and avoid going to the ground where they can be a pain for the people that have to walk around the area. The benefit that the Weaver Ants provide to fruit trees is that they keep away other pests that can seriously damage the fruit.
Like the Fire Ants, the eggs of the Weaver Ants are coveted by some Thais that make a cream from it that they say is sweet (I must confess that I have never tasted this delicacy and am not likely to do so).
Do you think you are smarter than Ants? Well, maybe not. Here is an interesting Fact you may no know about: Ants have a larger brain to body ratio than humans. About 2% of our body weight is brain. About 6% of an ant’s body weight is brain. (From the website Daisybrain – Curious Thoughts & Obsessions). We used to hear that humans were the only creatures with language. That was obviously not true, since many creatures communicate with language, not the least of which is the honey bee. Then they told us that we were the only creatures that could remember the past and act on it. But my dog remembers where I threw a piece of bread to the birds from 3 days ago. They said only humans have emotions. We now know that emotions are a very basic attribute of animals. Several creatures are known to change color with emotion. We were told that only humans made tools until we noticed chimpanzees making tools to catch termites. They thought humans had the biggest brains. However, a human brain is only about 17% of the size of a sperm whale brain.
So, be careful out there!
Recommended Reading: Adventures among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions by Dr. Mark W. Moffett, called “the Indiana Jones of Entomology” by the National Geographic Society. This is an absolutely wonderful and absorbing book, a fun read and amazing photography.