[VIEWPOINT]A lesson learned from ants

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[VIEWPOINT]A lesson learned from ants

To protect citizens’ lives and property during an air raid by enemy aircraft or during various disasters, our country has prescribed emergency response systems in the provision of article 27-2 (Civil Defense Alarm) of the Civil Defense Basic Law.
Citizens should know how to respond to defense alarms in preparation of an enemy’s attack and disasters such as storms and floods so that they can evacuate promptly.
One way to inform people of urgent situations is through sirens, which can heighten tension more than any other method. According to the degree of urgency, the alarms can be use to warn about air raids.
The United States’ missile strikes, armed with advanced equipment, during its war with Iraq chilled our hearts. I can vividly recall the scenes in which the night sky of Baghdad was instantly turned into an inferno with flashes, explosions and the sound of sirens after F-117 stealth fighter-bombers and Tomahawk missiles attacked the city.
Attacks from enemies frequently occur to ants. To survive, ants need a means of communication that lets their family members know the movements of the enemy.
This means of communication is a chemical substance called the alarm pheromone. When there is an emergency, this chemical substance is quickly spread over ant nests, where it is received by the feelers of other ants. Then, this alarm pheromone stimulates their sensory cells and sensory nerves deliver the stimulation to the brain. This is how ants perceive the emergent situation. While people use sounds of sirens, ants use the smells of the alarm pheromone.
I have tried to experiment with ants countless times to understand their ability to cope with emergencies by poking into their holes with sticks or touching their pincers out in the fields.
The ants in Korea that fight back the hardest and the most bravely when attacked are Myrmicinae ants. The speckled ants live in tomb-like nests built mainly of grass or twigs of a tree. When I lightly touched their nests with a stick, they began to move busily, noticing that enemies invaded.
When about five minutes passed, the ants became peaceful again as usual. Because the first attack had little effect on them, only a few ants discharged the alarm pheromone to alert their family members. With the passage of time, the amount of the alarm pheromone dissipated and the pheromone lost its warning function. As the warning was over, the ants went back to their usual behavior.
How wise they are! If they had packed and run away all day because of a simple shock to their nest, the ants might have been too exhausted to survive.
I dug up their hole with force next time, at which time the ants became unsettled like disturbing a beehive, acting very nimbly and running away with eggs, larvae and pupas. When I dug up their nest more, I could see a queen ant three times bigger than ordinary worker ants.
Instantly, the worker ants rushed in at the same time to wrap the queen ant with their bodies, and the queen ant was no longer visible. Then, in the twinkling of an eye, they disappeared deep into the ground, carrying the queen away.
The loyalty of the worker ants to their queen was surprising. I could not help but admire their family love as they evacuated all their family members, even the eggs, larvae or pupas that could not move. Almost 20 minutes passed, but their evacuation still went on.
When I touched the ants with a stick again, they began to attack this time, raising their abdomen forward and discharging formic-acid. Their bravery reminded me of the Maori tribe in New Zealand.
Because it was a big air raid, the ants kept warning all family members by discharging the alarm pheromone. In about an hour, all the ants were out of sight. Thanks to their well-developed alarm system, the ants all succeeded in fleeing to safety.
North Korea is threatening with its declaration that it has nuclear weapons, engaging in an extremely risky game of brinkmanship. The greatest victim of the game is destined to be South Korea. We need to take thorough measures, but it is regrettable that our society seems really indifferent to the threat. Ants may reproach us: “Why are you so complacent?”

* The writer is a professor of entomology at Wonkwang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Byung-jin

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