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YouTube - technoendo

An Ant Farm's Life in 3 Minutes

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YouTube - technoendo

Ants are persistent, industrious little guys—unlike me on a Monday morning. If you've ever had an ant farm, you know it's easy to peek in and see them moving around, tunneling, gathering food, and exploring. But it's hard to see the progress of the ant farm over time, because, let's face it, ants are small and tunneling goes slowly. Enter timelapse photography!

In this three-minute video spanning 52 days, we see nearly the whole life cycle of a Harvester Ant colony living in a gel environment. In this environment, the gel provides both food and a tunneling medium. An enterprising YouTuber (technoendo) set up the ant farm with a timelapse camera rig pointed at it. Get ready to feel way less productive:

The photographer wrote on YouTube:

Today on day 52 I'm declaring this project officially done. The cats knocked the ant farm off the shelf as they were found sleeping right next to where it was the following morning. Many ants have died as part of their natural 3 month life cycle, and with no queen to keep the hive coming it does come down to the end. Hopefully all that blue gel is tasty and that they had decent lives indoors in stable conditions with plentiful food.

Oh, cats. There's more information in the YouTube description.

For another perspective, here's another video showing just seven days of a similar colony—but the photographer uses flashlights to encourage the ants to tunnel in new directions. Check it out (warning: techno soundtrack):

Similar ant farms are under $20 on Amazon. You have to provide your own ants or buy them online separately, though.

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Adria C. LeBoeuf
Ants Communicate by Swapping Spit
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Adria C. LeBoeuf

Some insects’ mouth-to-mouth exchanges transmit tiny molecules of hormones and other important chemical information, according to scientists writing in the journal eLife.

The spit-swapping behavior is called trophallaxis. Many entomologists who witnessed the behavior in ants and other social insects believed the bugs were using it to efficiently share food. But some researchers noticed that carpenter ants were trophallax-ing in non-dining contexts, like when one ant would return to its family after being away. The scientists wondered if the ants’ kissing juice contained more than just calories.

They brought lots of ants into the lab to sample what the ants were sharing. At first, the researchers tried just waiting around until one ant initiated trophallaxis, but that mostly resulted in a lot of waiting and very little fluid. Eventually, they figured out that they could gently squeeze the ants’ bellies until the liquid came dribbling out of their mouths.

The researchers ran chemical and genetic tests on the fluid to determine its contents, and they found all kinds of interesting things. The liquid did indeed include particles of food and digestive enzymes, but it also contained several growth-related proteins and a juvenile hormone that can influence an insect’s development.

To find out how these compounds might affect a trophallaxis recipient, the researchers added the juvenile hormone to the meals they were feeding adult ants. The adults passed the hormone-charged liquid onto their larvae. The larvae loved it. Individuals who had taken in the hormone were twice as likely as others to survive to adulthood.

First author Adria LeBoeuf works at the Center for Integrative Genomics in Switzerland. She says the ants could very well be using trophallaxis to decide which larvae succeed. “When the ants feed their larvae, they aren’t just feeding them food, they are casting quantitative ballots for their colony, administering different amounts of growth-promoting components to influence the next generation,” she said in a statement.

Larvae chosen to receive the liquid are being nourished in more ways than one. In some ways, LeBoeuf says, it’s a lot like mammals’ milk. It also suggests that “…the oral exchange of fluids, such as saliva, in other animals might also serve previously unexpected roles." Yum.

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Josh Cassidy/KQED
Watch These Peruvian Tree-Protecting Ants in Ultra HD
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Josh Cassidy/KQED

In the Peruvian rainforest, a mutualistic relationship thrives between Inga tree saplings and native ants. The young trees need the ants as defense, so insects don't eat their leaves. The ants get "paid" for this defensive role using nectar provided by the tree.

In this beautiful Ultra-HD video from Deep Look, we see how this relationship works—and how it breaks down when clever Riodinid caterpillars come along!

The moral of this story? Never trust ants to protect you.

For more discussion, read this KQED article. Also fascinating is this paper by Suzanne Koptur (PDF link) describing the same ecosystem. There's also a nice It's Okay To Be Smart video on ant/tree mutualism.

And if you enjoyed this, watch another Deep Look video: What Do Ants Do With the Leaves They Carry Around?

(Photo courtesy of Josh Cassidy/KQED.)

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