Illustration by Nanda Ormond

Kelly Slater Challenged By A Bull Ant!

Jock Serong’s Short History Of Bull Ants

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 world-class: 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 ten 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.

Jock Serong