The Matabele Ants | Botswana Wildlife Guide

Ant burrow.

The Matabele ants are aptly named after an African tribe that destroyed everything in their path as they swept through south and central Africa in the 1800’s on raids and military campaigns.


Matabele ants are likewise rather formidable; they go to war with termites the same way the Matabele tribe use to overwhelm their enemies. Even humans are not exempt, as they have a ferocious bite and 10 or more bites can paralyze a human arm. The ants are generally known as Matabele ants or African diver ants in different parts of the continent. On a recent trip in Botswana and Zambia I noticed that on game drives or walking safaris, guides often stopped to point out parades of these black ants crossing the road or pathway.

Matabele ants live in colonies that can grow to sizes in excess of 20 million members. The ants are often seen on the march in search of food, especially once their supply has diminished. When the colony is on the march they move as one entity in a single column, with the larger soldier ants on the edge of the column providing protection for the smaller worker ants. While marching in their columns, smaller search parties break off in search of food and prey. Once food has been located, a pheromone is released to attract the rest of the column which quickly overwhelms it. The ants create a rattling or hissing noise as they move, but will do this especially when threatened.

The soldier ants possess formidable pincers which are easily able to puncture flesh or can be used as a defensive weapon. They are one of the world’s largest ants reaching a size of 20 millimeters or more. Another defensive weapon, which is not often utilized, is the sting it possesses on its rear, which is sometimes used to dissuade any intruders or predators. The pincers are effectively utilized in the efficient dismemberment of their prey which includes grasshoppers, moths or even considerably larger prey such as mice and birds.

Matabele ants are specialists at feeding on termites. They attack the termite colony, neutralizing the soldiers and then killing the workers. They steal the eggs and nymphs within the termite colony to take back to their colony as food. The ants form tightly structured armies and gather in large numbers to raid the termite nests. In Botswana there is an abundance of termite mounds and it is probable that the Matabele ants play a major role in controlling termite numbers within this region.

Reproduction is carried out exclusively by a lone queen in the colony in which mated workers are absent. During mating season, winged queens and drones are formed. In terms of size the drones are larger than the soldiers while the queens are much larger. Like most ants, workers and soldiers of the colony are sterile and therefore are non-producing females. The ants mate on the wing, and the queens go off to establish new colonies.

In regions like Botswana, these ants can be seen as a menace to humans as not much can be done about their abundant existence. When passing through a village the ants bring about a problem or a risk. There have been documented cases of kids being consumed by the ants often dying of asphyxiation. The ants do however serve a purpose in that they get rid of and keep away pests like large rats, crop pests and other insects.

By Bishard Fakir



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