A Short His­tory of...


Surfing World - - Introduction -


I’ve only met Kelly Slater once. He was un­der a hoodie, lean­ing on the rail at Bells, check­ing the surf. We were in­tro­duced by a third party: he barely grunted be­cause he was busy. A large bronze bull ant was reared up on the rail, wav­ing its mandibles at him in fury as he jabbed an in­dex fin­ger at it. It was un­clear who started it, but the matchup was world­class: His­tory’s Most Com­pet­i­tive Surfer meets Na­ture’s Most Tena­cious In­ver­te­brate. There could be no back-down from ei­ther party. If they hadn’t called Kelly’s heat they’d both still be there, and he’d only have seven world ti­tles. Bees make honey. Spi­ders kill flies. Bull ants seem to have no ex­is­ten­tial drive other than to wreck a sum­mer’s day. What pos­si­ble in­sult could make so many in­di­vid­u­als of one species so prodi­giously fu­ri­ous over such a long pe­riod of time? There are 90 dif­fer­ent species of bull ants in Aus­tralia. They were first recorded by Joseph Banks, who in 1770 was pre­sum­ably stung by one be­cause thongs weren’t in­vented yet. The big guys are up to four cen­time­tres long and they pack a pow­er­ful punch. For most of us bare­foot en­to­mol­o­gists, they fall into two camps: the gin­ger ants (AKA inch­men, bull­dog ants or hoppy joes - Myrmer­cia gu­losa) and their ridicu­lously ag­gres­sive smaller cousins, the jack jumpers (Myrmer­cia pi­lo­sula). Gin­ger ants, de­spite be­ing huge, armed to the teeth and re­flex­ively vi­o­lent, are poorly evolved and have no so­cial abil­i­ties. In th­ese re­spects, they are the Co­mancheros of the in­sect world. They also have no chem­i­cal sense – which dif­fer­en­ti­ates them from bikies – and thus rely on their ex­cel­lent eye­sight to hunt. Jack jumpers come with their own evo­lu­tion­ary ver­sion of id­iot tape: a plain medium size black ant, their fierce jaws are painted lurid yel­low, as in TH­ESE BA­BIES ARE HERE TO SPIKE HELLFIRE IN YOUR SHITPOT MAM­MAL HIDE. They will jump all over the place at the mere sight of a hu­man, and yet kids are still drawn to their bur­rows, pok­ing sticks in the en­trance un­til they swarm out like lava but with legs and a griev­ance. The tor­ture is in the tech­nique: it’s not the Jaws of Strife that de­liver the st­ing, and it’s not the turnip-shaped ab­domen. It’s both. The ant grabs on with its mandibles and then curls the abdo like a body­builder on bad roids to re­veal the sting­ing lance, which in­jects a fiery venom. Up to 3% of Aus­tralians are al­ler­gic to the venom, and half of th­ese will go into ana­phy­laxis. Ants of both species like sand, scrub­land and gravel en­vi­ron­ments: in short, they like any­where where you will be blithely wan­der­ing about with your eyes on a blue hori­zon in­stead of on your soft pink feet. I once stood on a cliff edge on the Great Ocean Road, check­ing the waves with the sun on my back. Na­ture called. I was mid-stream when I felt a tiny itch of move­ment, and looked down to see a huge bull ant had as­cended my leg by stealth and was about to plant its flag on the hairy sum­mit of my tes­ti­cles. Holysweet­moth­erof­je­sus. I re­leased both hands from their as­signed tasks and slapped fu­ri­ously at my groin, si­mul­ta­ne­ously los­ing my bal­ance and tum­bling down the cliff in a cloud of dust, piss­ing all over my­self. The bull ant never struck, and is prob­a­bly still laugh­ing some­where. I wound up tan­gled in a black­berry bush as the week­end tourists wound slowly past on the road above. It was off­shore, by the way.

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