A walk in the rain

I couldn’t let the unending rain dictate my life any longer. On Friday I slipped my phone into my pockets, put on my walking shoes and a poncho, and went out for a walk.

The world was full of life and death, decay and growth. Lush vegetation, scrubbed clean with rain, fallen leaves on green leaves, termites scurrying along walls. In this dreadful light, the camera can’t keep up with the insects.

Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, a mouthful for such a lovely flower: the night blooming jasmine. They are flowering already, but the rain washes away their scent. A month from now, the fallen flowers will wilt slowly through the day, releasing their lovely perfume all day.

A strangler fig is slowly killing its host; terrible for the host, but possibly a wonderful sight in future when the fig spreads out its branches and aerial roots. The flooded earth has sent the invading giant African land snails up the wall. Welcome to the club.

Bracket fungi have reappeared predictably on the trunk of a tree where I’ve seen it in the last two years. This tree is sick. The invisible filaments of the fungus have found its bed of secret joy, and its dark secret love is killing the tree. A William Bleak morning indeed!

Go to the ant

In spite of taking photos of insects for over a decade, it turns out that I don’t have a photo of an ant. So, now that I want to talk a little about how ants deal with epidemics, the only photo I can use is of a termite. Since termites are social animals too, the photo is not inappropriate.

I came across a two year old paper which observed how ant colonies deal with infections. It seems that ant colonies have a rather modularized structure. Every ant does not meet every other member of the colony all the time. They mostly socialize with a reasonably small set of friends and colleagues. These little social cliques intersect, so that they have the “six degrees of separation” that human networks show. What this means is that messages pass very efficiently from one forager to another, or from foragers to the queen and her attendants.

It turns out that when a forager is exposed to an infection, the social network rearranges itself. Each ant meets a much smaller set of friends. As a result, it becomes harder for messages, and infections, to pass from one to another, or to the queen. It is amazing that these measurements were made and have been known for two years already. Interestingly, the colony does not lock down all activity. It cannot afford to do that for long, like human societies. Foraging, defense, breeding continue, but with appropriate caution, namely defensive distancing.

Who says that there is no proof that distancing is effective against an infection? You can quote chapter and verse now (Proverbs, 6 and 6, if you must know). People have gone to the ant, considered her ways, and learnt from it. The lesson is clear: distancing works against infections.