Eciton hamatum

The frenetic action of the army ant lifestyle invites spectacular photography. There’s the rush of the raid, the evisceration of prey, the bravado of flanking soldiers, and the entourage of flies, beetles, and antbirds.

But shooting these subjects- here I refer explicitly to Eciton- is different than general insect photography. The problems are four-fold:

  1. Army ant habitat, the forest understory, can be rather dark.
  2. Army ants are fast.
  3. Army ant microhabitat, the leaf litter, is visually cluttered.
  4. Army ants sting. In groups. With great gusto.

The high action of an ant raid calls for a fast shutter speed in an environment that doesn’t have much light. Flash is essential- even the most sensitive sensors at high ISO will struggle to keep ahead of the blur. Then there’s the difficulty in getting a clean shot. The forest floor is a messy tangle of rotting leaves, broken sticks, and assorted detritus. It’s a dim, visually complex environment through which army ants race at breakneck pace. Capturing a well-composed, properly exposed image is challenging.

And then 300 stinging ants simultaneously decide to kill you.

Eciton burchellii, soldier

It’s not all bad, though. Army ants have the advantage of being predictable. Raids go out, they come back, they follow obvious trails. With a bit of observation you’ll know where they’ve been, where they’re going, and where they’ll be for the next few hours.

You can use this predictability to your advantage. Mainly, you’ll have time to anticipate the action. Since a raid may snake for 100 meters through the forest, you’ll also have your pick of particularly productive spots. If a location isn’t working out, you can pace the trail to find a better one. Here are some characteristics I’ve found useful:

  • A sharp bend in the trail will give the opportunity park the camera at the curve and shoot a column head-on.
  • Trails that follow roots, logs, or other raised surfaces allow you to drop down below the columns and shoot at the ants’ eye level.
  • Trails that cross visually simply backdrops- like a large, freshly-fallen leaf- make for compelling overhead views.

Army ants have a complex biology with countless photogenic behaviors. Armed with background knowledge about ant natural history, you’ll find plenty to photograph.

  • To find a bivuoac, go out in the afternoon when raid trails are at their longest and most visible. Follow the ants back in the direction of carried prey.
  • To capture predation at the raid front, do the same but follow the ants in the outward direction. Earlier in the day is more productive.
  • Shooting ants running trails is easy- just set up anywhere the conditions are right.
  • Army ant colonies have groupies. Beetles, wasps, flies, and other animals live among the ants and near the raids. Those that use the ants to scare up prey hang out at the raid front and are among the last insects to return to the bivouac in the evening. Others, including some that prey on the army ants themselves, are most reliably seen in the bivouac itself.

Lighting, of course, is highly important. For maximum flexibility in camera angle and light direction, I prefer a remote strobe like so:

As to the stings, short of building a remote-control ant cam there’s only so much you can do. Eciton burchellii is particularly nasty- a slight whiff of CO2 and hundreds of ants spill from the trails, abandoning their normal behavior and looking for something to sting. Rubber boots and thick rain gear can protect you if you can stand the heat, but that doesn’t solve the problem that disturbed angry ants won’t display any natural behaviors other than photographer-killing.

It’s best to approach slowly and avoid breathing near the ants. If you do disturb them, back off, wait a few minutes, and try again. Longer lenses with longer working distances will help. You’ll get stung- a lot- if you attempt, however bravely, Canon’s MP-E lens.

Finally, I recommend Benadryl. Good luck!

Eciton burchellii