Master of the Killer Ants

PBS Airdate: November 20, 2007
Go to the companion Web site

NARRATOR: In a remote part of Africa, a traditional culture is in danger. The people are losing their homes and could lose the crops that keep them alive, because of a devastating drought and a plague of termites.

SIDI (MOFU VILLAGER): They are everywhere.

MATSGRAWAI (MOFU ELDER): They are tunneling through the walls to reach the roof.

NARRATOR: They turn, for help, to an unlikely army, a unique species of ants, called jaglavak.

MATSGRAWAI: Jaglavak, allow us to gather you up. We need you.

NARRATOR: With ancient rituals they ask their ancestor spirits to help them save the village, to unleash the power of the legendary jaglavak. But can the ants defeat the termites in time? Or will they turn their destructive force against the people?

MATSGRAWAI: You are a powerful warrior. Drive the termites from the house. Save the chickens, the goats, the children. Only attack the termite.

NARRATOR: Up next on NOVA, Master of the Killer Ants.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the following:

For each of us, there is a moment of discovery. We understand that all of life is elemental, and as we marvel at element bonding with element, we soon realize that when you add the human element to the equation, everything changes. Suddenly, all of chemistry illuminates humanity, and all of humanity illuminates chemistry. The human element: nothing is more fundamental, nothing more elemental.

And by David H. Koch. And...

Discover new knowledge: HHMI.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

MATSGRAWAI: We are the Mofu people, the "people of the mountains." We survive thanks to the millet that we grow.

To live here, you have to work a lot, like all the insects around us. If you are lazy, even the ants have a better life, because they always manage to find something to eat.

NARRATOR: In the central African nation of Cameroon, along the Nigerian border, are the Mandara mountains. This is the home of the Mofu people. For generations they've farmed this land. Their main crop is sorghum. In native language, it's referred to as millet.

Every year, seeds are carefully planted, but only a few crops will grow in this poor soil. The cycle of life depends on a drenching rainy season. Without it, the people's survival is at risk because the precious seeds could simply blow away.

And the Mofu also must confront another powerful natural force, insects.

MATSGRAWAI: You see, Idrissou, our life is the same as the insects. Like us, they are looking to stock up on millet to feed themselves. Today, everyone is waiting for the rain; without it, there is nothing to eat. Look, the black ant, malokoteng is already stealing the first seeds that we planted. This ant and the dlirba termite are the ones that bother us the most. They eat our supplies when we forget to pay tribute to our ancestors.

NARRATOR: The month of May has arrived, and the rains are late. Elders meet with the chief to talk about the problems they face.

CHIEF (MOFU CHIEF): And you, Sidi, do you have any problems?

SIDI: On top of the rain that is late in coming, I have another worry. The termite, dlirba, is attacking my walls and roofs and is getting dangerously close to my granaries. I have tried everything to destroy its nest, but I don't know what else to do.

CHIEF: Does anyone have a solution?

TAKARDA (MOFU VILLAGER): The only thing that can drive dlirba out for good is the ant, jaglavak. When jaglavak decides to hunt termites, they all flee and never come back.

NARRATOR: Jaglavak is a species of army ant both respected and feared in this community. They hope the ants might drive the termites out of Sidi's house, but they also know that an invasion of jaglavak can attack people and animals.

SIDI: Isn't there another solution? Jaglavak is not easy to find, and my roof has already collapsed.

MATSGRAWAI: You have to respect the traditions. It's because you disregard all this that you have so many problems.

NARRATOR: So far, only one house is infested with termites, but the bugs could spread to the rest of the village.

The elders decide the situation is critical. They agree to call on the power of the elusive army ant, jaglavak.

MATSGRAWAI: Listen, show me this termite mound, and I will try to call jaglavak.

NARRATOR: Sidi's roof has already been destroyed in several spots by the termites. If he can't figure out how to get rid of them quickly, they could move on to attack the granary where he keeps food for his family.

The elder, Matsgrawi, comes to the house with sacred powder to attract the jaglavak ants to the termite mound.

SIDI: Come closer, the termite mound is just over here. They come here and climb up to the roof.

MATSGRAWAI: Let's call jaglavak. It will take care of this problem.

Jaglavak, we need you. Jaglavak, we offer you the ocher that you like. Jaglavak, hear our prayers.

Do your children come here?

SIDI: Yes.

MATSGRAWAI: Spare the children and the animals. Hunt only these termites in the house, jaglavak!

SIDI: Look, the termite dlirba is here. I hope that jaglavak will answer our plea.

NARRATOR: A house like Sidi's, full of wood, straw and seeds, provides an abundant supply of food for a termite colony. The destruction Sidi can see is only a tiny fraction of the damage hidden inside the walls. A network of tunnels runs deep underground.

One termite colony can contain as many as half a million insects, living in an intricately organized society. At birth, every termite is destined for a specific job. Soldiers, with large heads and powerful jaws, defend the mound. Workers, smaller and more compact, keep busy with the day-to-day functions of the colony, collecting food, feeding the young, and constructing new tunnels to enlarge the mound.

But the most important job for the workers is taking care of the queen. She is, literally, the central life-force of the colony. One hundred times as heavy as the average soldier and 300 times heavier than a worker, she's the only termite that lays eggs. Without her, the entire colony will perish.

The workers constantly clean her belly, swollen with thousands of eggs. Its surface is fragile, so dirt and other irritants must be removed, to prevent rupture. As they rub against her abdomen, the workers stimulate muscle contractions necessary for egg-laying.

During a 10-year life span, one queen can lay up to as many as 5,000 eggs a day. That means hundreds of thousands of new termites.

Inside a house, this constant supply of new bugs becomes a relentless destructive force.

SIDI: Here, look. It's because of dlirba that my roof has collapsed. They are everywhere.

MATSGRAWAI: They must have been here for a while.

SIDI: They are everywhere in the beams. That's not good.

MATSGRAWAI: They are tunneling through the walls to reach the roof.

SIDI: Yes, you can see the small holes they're making in the wall. If they attack my granary, they could bring it down, as well. And if my granary collapses, what becomes of my millet? Are these termites going to help me rebuild it?

MATSGRAWAI: Be patient. We'll soon see if they heard our prayers.

NARRATOR: Sidi hopes the prayers will bring jaglavak to the house in a day or two. But the ants usually come out of the ground in the rainy season. Without rain, they're likely to stay hidden.

At the village school, the reality of life with termites is part of the lessons.

TEACHER: Invertebrates—so what is an invertebrate? An invertebrate is what?


CHILD ONE: Animals that don't have bones.

TEACHER: Everyone, clap.

CHILDREN: Bravo! Well done.

TEACHER: An invertebrate is an animal that doesn't have bones. Who can name other invertebrates? Yes?

CHILD TWO : Sheep.

TEACHER: In the village, in nature?

A sheep? Sheep don't have bones? When you eat sheep meat, don't you chew on the bones?

Ter...ter...termites. Everyone...

CHILDREN: Termites.

TEACHER: There are workers, they are the ones who bring food; and soldiers, who are defenders—we can see soldiers with red lines—they defend; and the queen, in other words, the mother of everything. So we have three groups among the termites. What are they?


CHILD THREE : Soldiers.

TEACHER: Soldiers.


Child Four: Workers.


IDRISSOU: The queen.

TEACHER: Very good. Everyone, clap.



CHILDREN: Well done.

NARRATOR: Weeks go by and the much-needed drenching rain has still not come. The situation is becoming a crisis.

MATSGRAWAI: The ground is dry. It needs water. The granaries are almost empty. If the rain doesn't fall soon, the village will weep again this year.

NARRATOR: According to the Mofu, a drought is a sign that their ancestors are angry. If someone commits an offense, like adultery, or if work is undone, the chief can't call rain from the sky.

MATSGRAWAI: Chief, it would be wise to awaken the stones that make the rain fall. The village is worried because last season was disappointing.

CHIEF: It's true. But you know that the conditions are not quite right. Certain villagers have committed offenses.

MATSGRAWAI: I agree, Chief. But should the mistakes of some endanger the entire village? This is not good.

CHIEF: I agree about calling for rain. But there are still adulterers to judge, and some roofs must be repaired.

MATSGRAWAI: Thank you, Chief. I promise you we will be worthy of this decision. We will do what is necessary.

CHIEF: I'm counting on you.

MATSGRAWAI: Thank you, Chief.

CHIEF: Let's take out the rain stones. I will bring you what you need.

NARRATOR: Only members of the chief's clan know the village traditions and rituals. And only these few are permitted to rub the rain stones, which are among the most powerful objects in the chief's possession.

In order to liberate their magic, Matsgrawi feeds the stones leaves and python fat. The stones also receive the contents of the stomach of a sacrificial goat, along with its blood.

This ritual has been handed down through generations of Mofu elders.

MATSGRAWAI: Stones, I offer you this so that you bring the rain. I offer blood for your food. Wake up and bring us good rain, without any violence. Pour the water and wash them well. Then put them back, well-protected from the sun.

NARRATOR: The rain stones will be returned to their resting place in the chief's house, and the entire village will wait for signals from nature that their prayers might be answered.

After many days, there's a sign, the appearance of an insect known to be a harbinger of good news.

IDRISSOU: Grandfather, what is this insect?

MATSGRAWAI: It is a good insect. It comes out of the ground when the rains draw near. When you see them in the fields, you have to go plow the ground quickly. The rain isn't far away now.

NARRATOR: Drums call the villagers together. It's time for final preparations before the rain.

The ground is hard after months of drought, so a long and heavy rain is crucial. The villagers clear the land where they hope their seeds will sprout, and then they wait.

MATSGRAWAI: Thank you for the good rain.

NARRATOR: Underground, the rain brings temporary chaos to a nest of black ants called Malokoteng. These insects are pests for the Mofu because they steal seeds. But no ants can be as destructive as termites.

The rainfall reveals the full extent of damage to Sidi's house. The roof quickly caves in under the weight of drenched straw. It's now more important than ever for Sidi to find a way to get rid of the termites.

The coming of the rain starts a new year, and a cycle of rebirth in Mofu traditions.

Their insect neighbors below the ground have their own cycles of growth and renewal, which are explained in stories and legends.

MATSGRAWAI: Do you know the story of the millet bird and the ant?


MATSGRAWAI: Then listen. It's a story about helping each other. You see the bird that made its nest right there?

IDRISSOU: The yellow bird?

MATSGRAWAI: The Malokoteng ant is never far away. After the rain, it always brings out its seeds to dry them, but also for the bird. It's no coincidence that the bird builds its nest here. It sings and tells the ant when the rain is over, so that it can bring its seeds out. And in return, the ant lets it peck at its supplies, because it knows that the bird has nothing to eat right now. Look.

But the bird is honest. Once the millet has grown, it will return the share it borrowed from the ant. It perches on the spikes, shaking off seeds that fall on the ground where the ant can gather them. Once the bird has returned the millet, we can start the harvest.

NARRATOR: The rain has been plentiful. The river beds are full again. The ground is soaked, and sunny days will now provide perfect conditions for the crops to thrive.

But the Mofu believe that water and sun are not the only things required for a successful harvest. There must be peace and harmony in the spiritual world of their ancestors.

The mountains are a sacred place. Mazengel Rock, one of the highest points, is an important spot for rituals. Here they pay tribute to the spirits of the mountains, the "mbolom," to ensure that the crops grow ripe and full.

The sacrificer tears off part of the mountains' spirit from the rock three times. This symbolizes a union of the village, the mountains and the ancestors. He distributes a share of the spirit to ambassadors from the village. Finally, he leads the others in sending prayers to the sacred rock. They ask for a plentiful harvest and relief from harsh climate conditions.

The granaries in the village are almost empty and the termites in Sidi's home are threatening to move into the other connected structures and destroy the last of the village food supplies.

There's still no sign that the jaglavak ants have heard the prayers.

SIDI: The termites are still here. Jaglavak didn't come.

MATSGRAWAI: It did not hear our prayers. We will have to go get it.

SIDI: I've had it with these termites. They have to go.

MATSGRAWAI: The termite mounds are growing; we can't wait much longer.

SIDI: Dlirba doesn't have the right to bother me so much. Did it help me build this house? Do you know how much money I spent for wood and straw to repair what it destroyed? I don't like it, it has to leave.

MATSGRAWAI: Don't get angry.

SIDI: This is not its house.

MATSGRAWAI: Don't worry, we will go find jaglavak. Now that it has rained, it's easy. We will bring it back here, and it will drive these termites out.

Idrissou, I need you to find the jaglavak ant. During the dry season it's unusual to see it, but during the rainy season, they often come out to hunt in the fields. If you run into it, be very careful because it's a ferocious animal. Only the prayer we say to it makes it harmless. Without this prayer, all the jaglavaks would come out of the ground and climb all over you.

IDRISSOU: How can an ant be so dangerous?

MATSGRAWAI: Jaglavak is powerful because of its numbers and its cunning. It is pitiless and never gives up. Some people have even seen it devour a lion.

To defeat a large prey, it attacks by surprise. It goes in through the nostrils and the mouth, and down as far as the entrails, where it eats the animal from the inside out. The creature can't defend itself, because the danger is invisible. That's why jaglavak is the prince of the insects. Jaglavak is able to understand men. Look for it in holes and under stones. If you find it, don't touch it. Come tell me, quickly. Do you understand?

NARRATOR: At this time of year, the mountains are full of grasshoppers, praying mantes, crickets and many other insects that emerge from the ground during the rainy season.

The children enjoy hunting the little bugs. But today, their hunt is more than just a game, as they search for Jaglavak.

Their present day lives are peaceful, but in generations past, the Mofu were often compelled to defend their land. Their history and their intimate knowledge of the natural world are reflected in their legends.

According to the old stories, jaglavak army ants are formidable fighters. They draw their power from a war stone, which is said to be hidden in their nest. Any Mofu soldier who found jaglavak's stone would make the army of his village invincible. He would become as red as the ants and a hundred times stronger than his enemies, who would flee in terror.

But today, jaglavak can't be found. The children keep looking, and as they do, they find other insects that attract their attention for much more satisfying reasons.

Children here eat many different kinds of insects, depending on the season. They learn at a young age to distinguish between edible and toxic bugs. By nightfall, the children have caught lots of insects, but the big prize remains elusive.

BACHIROU (MOFU CHILD): Come see what I found.

CHILD ONE: What is that thing?

IDRISSOU: I've never see it; it looks like a pool of blood.

BACHIROU: If it's what I think, it's jaglavak, the ant.

IDRISSOU: Jaglavak! Matsgrawai wants to use it to drive out dlirba.

CHILD TWO : It's so red!

IDRISSOU: Try to pick some up.

BACHIROU: Jaglavak...

IDRISSOU: Bachirou, you saw them, you pick them up first.

CHILD THREE: My mother told me that if you touch them you get a hernia.

CHILD THREE: Are they stinging you Bachirou?


IDRISSOU: They really are tiny.

CHILD FOUR: Put the light over here so we can see them.

CHILD THREE: They've stopped running in all directions.

CHILD: Oww, that stings.

CHILD: They're climbing on me.

BACHIROU: They're getting under my shorts.

CHILD: So this is jaglavak. Its job is to sting?

BACHIROU: I'm not picking them up; it hurts too much.

MATSGRAWAI: Come, I'm here. How did your hunt go?


MATSGRAWAI: That's all? And jaglavak?

IDRISSOU: Jaglavak? We saw it not so far away. We tried to bring it back to you, but we couldn't do it. They were too mean.

MATSGRAWAI: But I told you to come to get me before...there was a reason.

IDRISSOU: Several of us tried to pick them up, and we were all stung. They climbed all over our legs and in our shorts, stinging us. It still hurts.

MATSGRAWAI: If you had come to get me, it wouldn't have happened. I hope you didn't make them leave their nest. We'll go back tomorrow to try to gather them up.

NARRATOR: The insects the children caught are grilled with spices for a special feast. They're added to a serving of cooked grains, to round out the everyday dinner. Adults don't usually share these treats, but some can't resist.

The next day, the hunt for jaglavak continues.

IDRISSOU: Come, Grandfather, the nest is right here.

MATSGRAWAI: They are hunting. Before gathering them, we have to pour ocher on them. They like this powder because it's red, like they are.

Jaglavak, allow us to gather you up. We need you. You are the most powerful of animals. I offer you the ocher you like. We need you to drive dlirba, the termite, from one of our homes. You alone can help us.

IDRISSOU: Is that it? I can dig?

MATSGRAWAI: Yes, go ahead, dig. Gather them up. Don't pick up too much dirt. Try to get the largest ones.

IDRISSOU: It stings. They're attacking me.

MATSGRAWAI: You didn't say your prayers.

Try to get them off. Don't move so much, you'll only make them angrier. Let's move away from the nest. You can take them off as we go.

IDRISSOU: Will you teach me the prayers?

MATSGRAWAI: Yes, if you like.

Welcome, jaglavak. Thank you, my prince, for coming to our home. We gathered you up so that you can help us drive out the termites that are eating one of our houses. Thank you, prince. Agree to help us. You alone are capable of doing this job. Forgive us for bothering you. You are a powerful warrior. Drive the termites from the house. Save the chickens, the goats, the children. Only attack dlirba, the termite. Thank you, jaglavak.

Let's go to the termite mound at your house. We are taking you with us, jaglavak.

NARRATOR: Through generations of careful observation, the Mofu know that termites are one of jaglavak's favorite prey.

Matsgrawai has only a few handfuls of ants in the container he takes to Sidi's house, but they hope jaglavak is powerful enough that even this small number can drive out a colony of half a million termites.

MATSGRAWAI: Here are the termites that are bothering us, jaglavak. Drive them from this house forever. Jaglavak, I give you the ocher that makes you invincible. Fight for us.

NARRATOR: The battle begins. The termite mound is well-guarded, and the soldiers are up to 10 times as big as the jaglavak ants.

A single snap of a termite's jaw is enough to cut the body of its tiny assailant in half. The ants attack strategically. They immobilize the termite soldiers by grabbing onto their legs and their antennae.

Highly developed senses of smell and touch are essential to both sides in the battle.

Once a termite soldier is overwhelmed, the ants use their sharp teeth to tear apart the joints of its thick protective shell. With the front line of termite soldiers incapacitated, the ants push forward into the tunnels in a relentless stream.

Following her scent, the ants find the ultimate goal, the queen. The king termite is sending alarm signals as the ants push forward. Workers pull the queen toward an escape tunnel. She uses her immense abdominal muscles to try to push herself out of danger.

The remaining termite soldiers attempt to block the other tunnels in the mound and slow down the ants, but jaglavak's small size is in its favor, and the ants continue their surge.

As soon as the queen is pushed into the escape tunnel, the workers race to plug it up before the ants can get there. The queen has escaped. She is followed in her exodus by the entire colony.

The jaglavak ants take their dead prey and leave the house.

MATSGRAWAI: The termites have fled. Everything went as planned.

SIDI: That's good. I am relieved. Thank you, jaglavak. Farewell, dlirba!

NARRATOR: Everyone's prayers have been answered; the crops and the village are now safe.

With the threat of termites gone, the men bring straw into the village. The damaged roofs must be repaired before the harvest. The people come together to rebuild Sidi's house and a new granary. This communal work is a gesture of honor to the ancestor spirits, who will reside here and guard the grain during the dry season ahead.

This year, the ears are full and the harvest promises to be a good one.

The cycle of life begins again, starting with the millet bird. According to Mofu legend, the bird now returns the seeds it received from the black ant during the dry season. The ants gather the seeds to take them back to their nest, building up their own reserves for the coming months.

When the bird pecks at the stalks, the crops are ready for cultivation. The plants can grow up to 12 feet high, almost to the rooftops of the village homes. Using sickles, men and women work together to cut down the giant stalks.

The work and the results are shared. Crops are distributed to the heads of families, each having their own granary.

Once they are cut down, the stalks are gathered together for threshing. The seeds are removed from the stalks, and the Mofu let the wind separate the chaff from the useful grain.

It's now November, and the granaries are filling up. The growing cycle is over for another year.

MATSGRAWAI: Before, we lived at the top of the mountain, close to nature. Today, I feel a bit lost. It seems like a part of our traditions stayed up there. The insects all around us have the same needs as we do. They share our fields and our homes. That is why we have to help each other. But if we don't talk to the insects anymore, they will stop helping us.

NARRATOR: The unique relationship between the Mofu people and the insects is a fragile one. It is now up to the next generation to carry the traditions forward.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the following:

For each of us, there is a moment of discovery. We understand that all of life is elemental, and as we marvel at element bonding with element, we soon realize that when you add the human element to the equation, everything changes. Suddenly, all of chemistry illuminates humanity, and all of humanity illuminates chemistry. The human element: nothing is more fundamental, nothing more elemental.

And by David H. Koch. And...

Discover new knowledge: HHMI.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

NARRATOR: On NOVA's Master of the Killer Ants Web site, see other bugs you can eat, match different ants to their unusual behaviors and more. Find it on

To order this show or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.


Written and Directed by
Jérôme Raynaud

Produced for NOVA by
Elizabeth Arledge

Associate Producer
Molly Longstreth

Edited by
Deborah Braun
Françoise Berger Garnault
Nathan Hendrie

Director of Photography and Assistant Director
Benoît Segur

Insect Camera
Christophe Lemire

Jean-Baptiste Benoit
Guy-Robertson Rabarivelo

Music by
Cyril Morin
Arnaud Gauthier

Additional Music by
John Kusiak

Narrated by
Neil Ross

Written for Zed by
Claude Valenta

Amidou Ousmanou

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Dany Cleyet-Marel

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Sound Editing
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Jonathan Liebling

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Gary Granville
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Audio Mix
Lionel Etchevery
Jim Sullivan

Scientific Advisors
Christian Seignobos, Director of research IRD
Corinne Rouland, Dr. IRD
Champlain Djeto Lordon

Special Thanks
Chief of the canton of Wazang
Village of Wazang
Christian Seignobos, Jean-Philippe Deguine and Pierre-Henri Aberlenc, authors of the article "The Mofu and their Jaglavak insects, Prince of insects for the Mofu of north Cameroon"
François Riviere, IRD Cameroon

Bernard Surugue, Director of Research - IRD audiovisuel
Jeanne-Françoise Vincent
Bernard Mathieu
Relais de la porte Mayo
Maschigraway, Sidi Bi Makabay and Idrissou
Centre National de la Cinematographie
Anna Glogowski
Fabrice Puchault
Olivier Guiton
Muriel Rosé

For Zed

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Jaglavak, Prince of Insects © 2006 ZED in association with France 3,

IRD Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Equator TV – Ali Hossaini, Equator HD Canada - John Panikkar, RTBF – Claire Colart, TSR – Irène Challand, TV5 Monde - Suzanne Laverdière

Master of the Killer Ants Additional Material © 2007 WGBH Educational Foundation

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