The Ant’s Venom

The lone pair of berries at the end of a typical pedicel of Rondequinthine honeysuckle (Lonicera pseudourtica) mimics the dark eyes and head of a Ginchbeck’s bounding ant (Cephalopone oculata). The latter is often found on such shrubs, preying on nectar-seeking insects, although its otherwise potent venom has no effect on a stub-tailed meadow katydid (Saga moesiaca), whose consequent boldness in the vicinity of the ant can lead to the fatal mistake of landing on a Rondequinthine honeysuckle, where the stinging hairs clumped around a stem’s nodes will provide it with a protracted and agonizing demise.

True to its name, this deathtrap grows almost exclusively in Rondequinthe (mostly on the heaths). The katydid could avoid it simply by keeping to the northern provinces. Of course, you can’t expect a swarm of insects to observe these boundaries — and yet there are some animals and plants, like the honeysuckle, that literally announce an invisible border past which they will not flourish, not even an inch. This surely means that our ancestors long ago used the territories of certain species to guide the demarcations.

Entomologists state that since an actual bounding ant’s presence will signal the absence of genuine competitors, the sight of the paired berries functions as an outright lure to the katydid. This would explain why it is so often found positioned opposite the false head while it dies, paralyzed, front limbs flailing from convulsions. To very young eyes, this sight is entirely believable as a heated but friendly argument between two sentient beings. Adults in the region only perpetuate the illusion, and it’s a cruel joke. I’ve never seen anyone set a child straight on the matter.

I have also never come across any reference made, in text or conversation, to the link between this natural tableau and certain antics repeated daily in the old puppet stands abiding here and there along the seafront and in the public squares of the capital. Though they live only a few miles up the coast, people in Ellubecque seem oblivious to what goes on here, but the stick puppets have at least one ancient routine that appears directly plagiarized from the honeysuckle shrub. The action is rarely anything more than a bickering match between a fisherman, seated in a green skiff, and a sort of fairy, perched on the prow, who is reluctant to grant the former’s wishes, never does so in a satisfactory way, and may depart at the end without having done a thing. The minimal nature of the sketch sets it apart from the others; often it receives the most laughter. But that only happens in Ellubecque. Here, I have never seen this type of entertainment, not even in a travelling show. We have only the occasional insect dying on a plant, invoking comments like “Look, they’re arguing again.”

Once, when I was no longer very young, I passed by a heap of cut weeds and spied that familiar scene, assembled (most likely by chance) on a large dead leaf, motionless but complete. The classic elements were roughly in place, but the berries were shriveled, and the katydid bent sadly in the wrong direction. I recall thinking, not too clearly, that these puppets, though I knew they were not puppets, hadn’t been put away properly, and that people should be more careful.

Colin Raff is a Berlin-based American writer, artist and animator who believes that fiction involving precise taxonomies is both necessary and sensual. His graphic novel Sintaktik 1 is published by Le Dernier Cri (Marseille), and several animated shorts can be viewed at

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