On the surface, nature is a terrifying landscape, filled with unspeakable violence perpetrated by tiny monsters and things that crawl on you in the night. But the closer you look, the more intricate and beautiful it all seems. And even when one of those beautiful things starts to scamper up your leg, you can rest assured that there’s a purpose behind it. If you walk along the insect sex of Thailand’s Mae Klong river at night, you might witness one of the most incredible visual displays in nature—tens of thousands of fireflies blinking in perfect unison.
Nobody knows why they do it, just that it’s part of their mating ritual. But the real mystery is how they’re able to synchronize their pulsing lights. It’s a localized communication that spreads through the swarm like ripples in a pond—if you were to watch the light show from the beginning, you’d see it start with just a handful of fireflies, who found the right rhythm. It’s not just Thai fireflies that do it, either. The same phenomenon has been seen everywhere from Japan to Texas. All we know is that it’s a male-exclusive behavior. The pine processionary is a little brown moth that lives in pine forests throughout Europe and Asia.
Despite its size, it’s one of the most destructive pests in the world. Its caterpillars can destroy up to 73 percent of a pine forest in a single generation, decimating it beyond hope of recovery. The caterpillars start life in basketball-sized sacs strung up at the tops of pine trees. This procession marches across their home tree. When that’s been consumed, they take to the ground and start on a new tree.
Every night they go out, and at dawn they return to their treetop cocoons, to sleep and wait out the day until they can feed again. Allomerus decemarticulatus is a species of ant that lives in the Amazon jungle. While most ants are foragers, picking up food wherever they can find it, the Allomerus genus lets their prey come to them. They build traps in the stems and leaves of trees, then lie in wait. When an insect stumbles over one of the trapdoors, the ant lunges out and snatches one of its legs. It then wedges itself in place, allowing it to hold onto prey larger than 13,000 times its size. At the same time, it sends out a pheromone signal to the other ants—and that’s when things get vicious.
More ants will grab the insect’s other legs and pull them apart, forcing it into a spread eagle position on the leaf, so that it can’t struggle while it’s being dismembered. Agriculture is one of the things that humans can safely claim as their own. At least, that’s what we thought until the 1970s, when it was discovered that several species of leafcutter ants maintained mushroom farms. The fungus is cultivated in carefully managed gardens, and the ants have evolved to be extremely thorough caretakers. Leafcutter ants are best known for the way they slice off bits of leaf and carry them back to their colonies. But the leaves aren’t food—they’re fertilizer. The ants drop the fresh leaves into the thinnest sections of the garden to boost growth in those areas.
Then, they chew off weaker fungus growths, holding onto several enzymes that come from the fungus. But that’s all just exposition for the truly bizarre part: Certain ants within the colony have the job of going around and licking all the fungi. By doing this, they’re spreading a bacteria that kills a competing fungus, one that would destroy the whole crop if allowed to thrive. In other words, the ants are using a pesticide to maintain their farms. The life of a flower is a nonstop, bloodthirsty competition. They’ve evolved dozens of signals to lure pollinators—like bees and butterflies—to visit them and spread their pollen. Every time a bee chooses one flower over another, it stands a chance of wiping out an entire genetic line.
Flowers have a positive charge, which stands out like a beacon in the fog of charged particles that are always floating through the air. Each flower, however, has a slightly different charge. Bumblebees can learn to distinguish between different voltages, and they remember what a specific charge looked like if, for example, they really liked sipping on that flower’s nectar. Even weirder, the flower’s charge reacts when a bee lands on it. It surges, then dims again when the bee flies away. Port-A-Jon, the surge lets other bees know that it’s currently being used.