Published: 24th June 2020
Getting antsy? Why you'll want to take a walk with Bengaluru's very own Ant-Man!
Sunil Kumar M who conducts ant walks in Namma Bengaluru speaks about the diversity of these little and disciplined creatures that we see every day and why he wants to create awareness among people
Ants are truly fascinating creatures. They can carry close to 50 times their body weight, they travel in a line and even if you break that line, they can quickly form a new one and continue. Quite interesting, right? Someone else who finds ants extremely fascinating is Sunil Kumar M, a resident of Bengaluru and a Senior Science and Innovation Adviser for a foreign embassy. Today, he is famous for the ant walks that he takes people on across Bengaluru to tell them interesting facts about ants and help them discover at least 30 different species in just two hours. Wow! Who'd have thought there would be so many different species of the li'l guy!
Telling us where his love for the tiny creature began, Sunil narrates, "It began in 1996, when I started visiting the Indian Institute of Science to do some research about ants. During this time, I came across a book titled The Ants by American entomologist E O Wilson. This book contains every minute detail there is to know about ants and hence, it is often considered the bible when studying ants. Believe it or not, ants and humans are a lot alike - like humans, ants too have slavery, there are ants that rob other ants, steal food, there is hierarchy and dominance within the nest, physical and chemical warfare and so on. Whatever we have today has been learnt from ants over the years."
After reading E O Wilson's book for two weeks, Sunil started looking for ants in the IISc campus."I would find various species of ants within the campus, put each one of them under a microscope and observe them carefully. Now, if someone wants to observe them like this, they can check out some videos on YouTube. Earlier, there was no such provision. I would record my observations in my book and this went on for a year. I went to Lalbagh, Cubbon Park, Sankey Tank, my own garden and so on. I was able to find out that Bengaluru alone has about 110 different species of ants, while a country like the United Kingdom has only 57 species. In places like the UK, where the temperature falls low, fewer insects are found," says Sunil.
After such detailed research, Sunil felt that it was necessary to write a book that people can refer to. He explains, "There hasn't been a book written on ants in India since the one written by Lt Colonel Bingham, a British officer, in 1903. So in 2006, my friend Anil Narendra, an Associate Professor at Macquarie University in Australia, and I decided to bring out a book on ants in India. As we wanted it to look unique, we decided to photograph the ants whenever we did a field visit and include those here. Within a few months, we put together the book and got it published under the title On a Trail with Ants: A Handbook of the Ants of Peninsular India."
Once Sunil and his book became famous, several colleges invited him to conduct ant walks or deliver lectures on ants in India. Since ants are to be observed, Sunil also takes these students on field visits. "When people participate in my workshop, the first thing I do is give them paper and a pencil and ask them to draw an ant. You'd think that would be easy but surprisingly, this is where everyone fails. When I show them a photo of an ant, they will realise where they went wrong. That's how their curiosity to observe ants begins. Unlike birdwatching where one needs to travel at least two to five kilometres, ant species can be found within 100 metres. I help participants find at least 20 to 30 species of ants in Cubbon Park alone within a short distance."
Educating us about this female dominated species, Sunil says, "There is a queen that lays eggs, instructs all the other ants to work and controls them by releasing certain chemicals. Most of the worker ants are female ants. From getting food to protecting their nest, everything is done by them. The queen ant makes sure that it lays eggs continuously to increase the population and see that their kingdom is alive. The queen and its daughters are the main actors here. For detailed watching and understanding of this, one must participate in the ant walk. Hopefully, when the pandemic is over, we will have more ant walks in the city."