Master of the Killer Ants

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: November 20, 2007

Deep within a termite mound in Africa, soldier termites spring into action, slicing their smaller opponents in half with a snap of their powerful jaws. But the attacking driver ants use strategy to overwhelm the defenders. Little do these six-legged combatants know that their marching orders come from a drought-plagued human village that is counting on them to drive out the termites.

Filmed in High Definition with advanced macro-shooting techniques, "Master of the Killer Ants" garnered best film awards at the Shanghai Film Festival and Japan's Wildlife Film Festival. The stunning footage includes different castes of termites coursing through their intricate tunnels—and the monstrously egg-swollen queen herself, rippling with the contractions that deposit thousands of eggs per day. (For more on the queen phenomenon, see Being Queen.) The climax comes as the invading driver ants close in on the queen's royal cell.

Although known for their ruthless aggression, driver ants also have a beneficial side. This is traditionally exploited by the Mofu people of northern Cameroon, who call the local species of red driver ants jaglavak. (To hear more of the Mofu and their traditions, go to Jaglavak, Prince of Insects).

"Master of the Killer Ants" tells the story of the Mofu's intimate relationship not only with jaglavak but with other insects. For instance, the people know that a crablike, bright-red insect serves as a harbinger of rain and a sign that it is time to prepare the earth. Winged insects and grasshoppers make a valuable food supplement and are especially tasty when grilled. (For more on edible insects, see Bugs You Can Eat).

But the insects provide a guide to behavior as well as an aid to survival. The Mofu say that they must work as hard and selflessly as the ants and termites if they are to survive, and they attribute drought and misfortune to their moral shortcomings.

One special quality of jaglavak above all concerns the village elder Matsgrawaï. When the film opens, he is called to inspect a neighbor's house. Termites have infested the earthen floor and are attacking the walls and roof. Worst of all, they threaten the adjacent granary with its crucial stock of grain sorghum.

From past experience, Matsgrawaï knows that jaglavak can drive the termites away, thereby securing the grain sorghum stores on which the villagers' lives depend. Under special circumstances, driver ants will attack termite colonies, and Matsgrawaï begins with prayers and offerings to jaglavak. When the ants fail to show up, he sends children to seek them out. (Play our Amazing Ants Game).

Thus commences a charming, instructive true-life fable on how to fight fire with fire—termites with ants—and not get burned, or rather too badly stung, in the process.

Program Transcript
Program Credits

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Mofu boy

The Mofu of northern Cameroon have a close and ancient alliance with insects, in particular the elusive but beneficial driver ant known as jaglavak. Here, a Mofu boy.

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© | Created October 2007