Ant Heaven

(Note: I made the mistake of taking an epic nap after my trip to Ant Heaven and before writing this post; therefore, a great deal of what was learned on the field trip just floated away into nothingness. I used to be so much better at retaining information.)

Normally I’d spend my Saturday morning running around Tallahassee, going to the Farmer’s Market or to estate sales. Today, though, I went on a field trip to a place affectionally dubbed “Ant Heaven” by Dr. Walter Tschinkel, our Olli instructor extraordinaire.

I’m not totally sure where Ant Heaven is, even though I drove my car in a caravan of other Olli participants to the spot. If it were a secret location I’d never be the one to spill the beans.

Soon after our group of a dozen or so arrived at Ant Heaven, Dr. Tschinkel put us to work laying bait trails.

The orange stakes indicate the location of an ant nest, while the pink substance is a mixture of mashed up cookie with a non-toxic pink dye added. Our job was to place the small piles of bait at various distances from the nest and then to observe foraging ants carrying bits of bait back to their respective nests.

Prior to our visit, Dr. Tschinkel had gone to the trouble of raking away much of the detritus (pine needles and leaves) from around several nests so we’d have a better opportunity to watch the ants in action.

Mine is the annoying voice saying, “It might be a carpenter,” which is totally wrong. What it might be is a Harvester ant. I should’ve kept my mouth shut. If I had a penny for all the times that was the case, Bill and Melinda Gates would be borrowing money from me.

As we watched ants foraging for bait Dr. Tschinkel set up the kiln to melt aluminum for casting a nest.

It takes time to heat the aluminum to beyond the melting point, so I wandered around trying not to step on any ants.

This video above is from a Harvester Ant nest. The black bits surrounding the nest, as well as those scattered on top of the nest, are pieces of charcoal. Apparently no one knows why Harvester Ants collect charcoal and mark their nests with it.

One of the critical tools of the professional myrmecologist is a shop vacuum. Seriously. The shop vac is used to clean debris from a nest and even to suction up a large number of ants to take back to the lab for studying.

In the video above, Dr. Tschinkel is using a suction tube to pick up ants as he searches for a fungus garden in the nest of a Northern Fungus Gardening Ant. These ants collect caterpillar droppings and “feed” them to a fungus that the ants tend as nourishment for the super organism that is the colony.

I believe you can see some of the ants suctioned in the picture below; although, these might not be the fungal gardening ants.

Once the aluminum had reached approximately 1,000° C, Dr. Tschinkel began the process of casting.

Now, a lot of work went into this prior to the pouring of aluminum. He had to clean around the nest, (shop vac) and scoop a large amount of sand away from the area. It’s a labor intensive task. Oh, lest any of you worry about loss of ant life, the castings are made from abandoned nests.

This first pour yielded a small casting.

They’re incredible little sculptures.

A second pour produced a larger piece; although, I didn’t get a picture of it for some reason. Both sculptures were sent home with lucky attendees who happened to guess a number Dr. Tschinkel had in mind.

I did get a couple of pieces leftover from previous pours. Generally such pieces are melted for future castings.

One teeny tiny ant (whose name I have forgotten) coats the chambers of its nest with a black seed-like fungus. No one knows why. It’s one of Dr. Tschinkel’s newest research topics, and one of our group members found a nest of the little guys. Dr. Tschinkel excavated one of the chambers and will study it further.

After the excavation we headed back to Tallahassee. I was tired and hungry but not grumpy. After a nice meal at a sushi place I returned to Doright Manor and took a three hour nap!

Ant Heaven was an adventure. I had a great time learning a little bit more about ants, and I’m leaving out incredible stuff here. We’ll blame the nap.

Peace, people!

Fabulous Ant Fact #4

Fire ants aren’t native to North America. Chances are they arrived in the U.S. in nursery stock (trees, etc.), in the 40’s and 50’s.

And, while early on the U.S. government hit the little guys with heavy duty chemicals in a number of eradication campaigns, all that was ultimately accomplished was widespread damage to birds and other wildlife in and near the treated areas. Meanwhile, fire ants continue to thrive. Indeed, the eradication efforts might’ve even aided the insects in their expansion into new territories.

Tomorrow (Saturday) morning, members of our Olli class are heading to a location our instructor, Dr. Walter Tschinkel, calls “ant heaven.” If conditions are right we’ll attempt to make a cast of an ant nest.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having mixed feelings about pouring molten aluminum into a colony of ants. It won’t break my heart if we don’t get to do the casting. I guess I’m an old softie. Sure hope the fire ants remember that next time I accidentally blunder into one of their mounds.

(That’s not my foot pictured below, by the way, but I’ve endured fire ant bites, and they are extremely painful.)

Fantastic Ant Fact #3

I’m enjoying the Olli class I’m taking at Florida State University more than I could’ve imagined. The class, The Parallel Universe of Ants, taught by Walter R. Tschinkel the author of The Fire Ants, is everything I’d hoped it would be, and more.

For one thing, Dr. Tschinkel has a great sense of humor, and he employs it with endless patience as we laypeople ask basic questions, often the same questions multiple times in one class period. He’s a veritable encyclopedia of ant info. I like the class so much I purchased his book.

It’s at least an inch thick, so it’ll keep me occupied for some time to come.

I know this is what you’re waiting for–FABULOUS ANT FACT #3:

After mating, female fire ants literally break off their wings after returning from the mating flight. That sounds harsh, but at least they don’t perish after mating as their male counterparts do.

Here’s a bonus tidbit that might come in handy at trivia some day. The study of ants is called Myrmecology, and those who study ants are myrmecologists.

I found this video of Dr. Tschinkel’s appearance on CBS Sunday Morning. The segment was filmed at the place he calls Ant Heaven. With any luck I’ll get to visit there in a couple of weeks when our class goes on a field trip!

https://youtu.be/tetDPeC4s2s

I’m no myrmecologist, but I know an ant when I see one.