Bower birds of Austro-Papuan region are indeed one of the most spectacular birds in the world, who pick objects of same hue to decorate them around their nests to woo their mate. It must be a task to range distances and have an analytical and reasoning skill to differentiate the colors, sizes and shapes of objects.
Nests are built either for refuge, breeding or hunting, some keep them concealed like potter wasps, some decorate using natural and man-made material like the Bowers while some like Velvet mites decorate with their own sperms, and some bagworms modestly yet wisely nest using debris and some engineer their’s just like this one; the networking social insects that make nests right under our feet!
Amita called out for Tarun who was investigating Wild dog’s scat that landmarked their vast home range. She pointed out a decoration of drying Justicia flowers around a half moon wall made of grains of earth. ‘These flowers look like some sort of decoration around a nest’ I speculated, just then two worker ants of Tetramorium species marched out of the hole and one brought the flower and the other heaved a grain of earth and then strolled on the bund drumming their antennae. The grain was thrice the size of their heads and it crumbled when touched as feebly known to mankind. This nest had a wall that faced west, it was as wide as the visor of a pea cap and the nest caved along the grass roots.
As Amita built curiosity about the behavior of ants, we took notice of ants and the floral decor at their nest more frequently in the rest of our walk. Eventually our eyes got hyperaware of the Justicia flowers federation around ant nests even during safaris! We now got intimate with glitzy Bower bird-like-adornment that these ants played with Justicia flower or if it was Justicia who played with ants- we pondered. We noticed that not all winter-flowering Justicia that bloomed in a comb were brought by these florists but they manicured till a flower or four charmed in the combs for the plant to pollinate and multiply. Ants are social insects mothered by one ant in most species and largely workers are sterile females, rarely they have nuptial moments in winters; the adornment echoes the Bower birds but not their intentions of love.
Botanist friend Guru speculates that ants are seldom foe to plants and this picking of flower has got to do with its nectar or pollen, and once done they litter the used flower around their walls. Most Tetramoriums are hearty when feeding, they feed on dead insects, kitchen food and even plant parts like pollen. But these ants bred further questions in my mind; would it not give away their presence to their predators? Does this flower mean special to the queen ant or larvae? We also noticed tectonic work done around many ant nest-sites, hence would the labor squad require more ant-power and is Justicia doing the justice?
We are curious to learn about the spectacular relationship of this plant and ants, do write to us and tell us what you speculate. After all the decorations did draw some love towards these ants!