Matabele Ants known as Hissing Ants

A lesson about hard work and teamwork

I heard this little story via a Bushveld Paddle Pod vine that 10 stings from the Hissing ants can paralyze your arm, a clear reminder that their closest relatives are bees and wasps. Fortunately, they don’t actively seek out arms but are strictly termite eating arthropods.

They are some of the biggest ants in the world and with a genus name like MEGAPONERA which essentially means the LAWLESS WICKED ONES, this alone will send shivers down the spines of most bush lovers. The history of this humble little insect reminds us of a time when a tribe roamed the hills and the valleys seeking out villages to pillage and plunder but fortunately, the Matabele’s don’t do that anymore and I personally prefer to call the ants by a more descriptive name HISSING ants.

This name hissing comes from a trait known as stridulating. This allows an army of a 1000 + ants to produce an intimidating sound by rubbing together body parts in order to ward off potential predators and also maybe as a little technique to keep everyone in line and focused on the mission at hand.

If you look closely at a marching column you will notice workers of different sizes, who are all females by the way. The main reason for the different sizes is for fitting into all the varied size holes in a termite mound, a very clever design by nature! So this whole raiding process starts with a female scout going out to find a food source and laying a pheromone trail back to her headquarters a.k.a a BIVOUAC. It’s interesting to note that the Hissing ants are nomadic in nature and will move their entire colony, pupa, larvae and all depending on food availability.

This pheromone trail can be as far as a 100m away, in human terms that is like walking to the grocery store 16km away using only your sense of smell. Remember the best time to watch all this activity is at dusk and dawn. If you are patient enough to have watched the scout fetch all her comrades in arms, pay special attention to their tactics just before entering the termite mound. Instead of going in one at a time, the raiding column stops and agglomerates until all the ants in the column have arrived. They then all rush forward at once and overwhelm their prey.

It’s important to remember fellow guides that driving or standing on a column of Hissing ants is TABOO and will result in the rest of your day being filled with bad luck! From a scientific point of view, use this unfortunate moment to watch a unique behaviour where fellow comrades will save injured individuals and carry them back to their BIVOUAC where clinging termites are removed and mutilated legs are amputated.

So next time you observe a raiding party of Hissing ants, see if you can spot one or two battle clade vetranesses with a leg or two missing.