Last weekend, while doing some routine yard work, I was witness to a life-and-death tableau that played out in front of my eyes not unlike what one might see on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet. Well, maybe I was more than just a witness—let’s just say an unwitting instigator of the drama. And no, this has nothing to do with cruelty towards iguanas or Key West chickens.

Myself being blind to most things relating to gardening or yard work, my wife pointed out this rather large dead branch sticking straight up out of an otherwise healthy tree. Not only did she point it out, she asked that I be the source of the brute force that would remove the branch.

I ambled over toward the tree, leaned into the dead branch, and soon heard the telltale cracking sound that informed me that branch and tree had been officially separated. I eased the branch to the ground, and let it fall where it wouldn’t hit anything. When I looked back at where the branch had once been attached to the tree, I could only stare in amazement.

Literally thousands of ants—not just ants, but fire ants—kept pouring out of the hole where the branch used to be. And they were pissed! Somebody had taken the roof off of their happy home, and the ants were none too pleased about the situation.

What made this scenario worthy of the Discovery Channel was the fact that the fire ants weren’t the only insects living in the dead branch. A colony of termites had also set up shop, doing exactly what it is that termites do. And both of these insect colonies were coexisting peacefully in the same branch until I came along.

Anyone who knows anything about fire ants knows that if their nest or mound is disturbed, the ants don’t take time to rationally think through a plan of response. The entire colony goes into attack mode, and God help anything in their way.

That’s where the termites come into the picture. Imagine being a termite in that tree that fateful Sunday afternoon. The only thing on your mind is eat wood, eat wood, eat wood. All of a sudden, the roof is ripped off your home and the next-door neighbor ants think you did it. And here they come: judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one mass of angry possessed insects.

The fire ants were attacking the termites with a vengeance. Every termite had a cluster of ants attached to it, biting, stinging, and turning the termites’ world into a living hell. Don’t get me wrong here—I’m no fan of termites. I hate the fact that they make us humans do stupid stuff like tent our homes to keep them from eating our homes. But watching the ants annihilate the defenseless termites that just wanted to eat wood was akin to watching hyenas attack their prey on one of those wildlife shows. Nobody feels any sympathy for the hyenas.

After 20 minutes of hauling barrels full of yard waste to the street, I decided to check back at the Tree of Termite Tragedy. It was like nothing had ever happened. There were no swarming ants, no evidence that a colony of termites had ever existed.

Knowing that appearances can be deceiving, I tapped the now peaceful war zone with a stick. Within seconds, thousands of pissed-off ants came swarming out of the tree, looking to deal harshly with the offender. Having witnessed what had happened to the termite colony, I was thankful to be sitting at the top of the food chain.

If there are lessons to be learned from this incident, perhaps they are these: 1) If you are sitting at home snacking on a Sunday afternoon and the roof is ripped off of your house, it’s likely that it’s not the only bad thing that will happen to you that day; 2) If you’re going to disturb a nest of fire ants, be sure you’re standing where none of them can get to you; 3) Don’t expect mercy from Mother Nature. Just ask the termites.



  1. What an exciting essay. I enjoyed it so much I read it to my husband while he was watching a baseball game. So taken with it, he actually paused the tv to listen. That’s a big deal around here!

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