Bengaluru’s ephemeral spring is almost over. You can tell the restlessness of the mercury once you step inside Lalbagh Botanical Garden, which is a few degrees cooler than the rest of the fast-warming city. Gentle rays of the morning sun fall on the walkways bustling with people trying to overtake each other in the name of brisk walking. In between it all, there’s a colourful group of children and adults armed with magnifying glasses. Strolling off the paths, these participants of Ant Walk examine trees and ants that scurry between rocks and leaves.

Led by EcoEdu, a group that organises nature walks, talks, workshops and camps, the Ant Walk

begins with an activity where everyone is asked to draw an ant. What follows is a quick run-through of facts that the average person is familiar with: ants are mostly black or red; they are tiny, but put together they outweigh the humans on the planet. They move dead things around, some sting, and most ants use their antennae to sense and communicate, because their eyesight is weak.

Open season

A flurry of terms — petiole, nodes and thorax — takes me back to biology classes at school. Looking around at the chirpy kids exchanging facts about worker and nurse ants with each other, I wonder if the EcoEdu team will be able to hold their attention for over two hours? What about mine? My curiosity is assuaged once we start observing the ants of Lalbagh. Out of the 12,000 — some say 22,000 — species of ants, we spot over 15 in the first few minutes. In two hours, we’ve also seen the diacamma (diacamma indicum) ant, which, according to articles on the internet, is a queen-less genus. We also spot weaver ants, acrobat ants, and even a yellow crazy ant. The latter is classified as an invasive pest in Australia where, with the help of helicopters, they are ‘eradicated’ by baiting areas as large as 2,000 sq m.

We split into smaller groups as the walk progresses. The conversation is largely ant-centric, though on a number of occasions it touches upon the magical effect that magnifying glasses have on all age groups. Keeping us company, as well as playing guide is Sunil Kumar, co-author of On a Trail with Ants. He says he has spotted over 80 species in the gardens of Lalbagh. Over the course of the walk, he shares many ant facts. As some children complain of hunger and thirst, Kumar says, “These ants are made into delicious chutney in some parts of Coorg.” My favourite learning of the day is the trail that ants leave for other ants. “Ants leave pheromone trails that other ants can sense. The pheromone trail is strongest on the shortest possible route to food.”

Tiny learnings

The behaviour of ants is often anti-human. We create waste; they move away plenty of man-made and natural waste and use it for sustenance and building. Their colonies have intricate patterns, channels and chambers that help aerate soil. They are great examples of what Kumar calls ‘a collective intelligence’ in action. He explains that unlike humans, ants do not always display traits of selfishness and individuality — working instead, for the common good of the colony. Ants such as the red fire possess what the now infamous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins christened ‘the green beard gene’ — a theory that became a bone of contention between him and William D Hamilton. They recognise the presence of certain shared genetic markers in other ants — primarily potential queens — and protect them or kill females that do not bear this marker. Ants fight aggressively to protect their territory and despite being predators, they are great ‘ecosystem engineers’.

On getting home I read up on ant colony algorithms — route optimisation techniques in use across industries today that are based on ants and their food-finding missions. Pheromone scents evaporate over time, wiping away the short routes. Other ants sense this and eventually end up in the long lines we see, foraging for food in their deceptively haphazard but orderly manner. No matter the size, blind ants solved our logistical issues centuries before we even knew we had them.

(Tara Rachel Thomas is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru)