Ant biology: June 2014 Archives

We have a huge colony that has seems quite mature. Has been there for a long time. They are small black and red ants and they have a nasty little bite. Unfortunately we need to place a structure right over the ants colony. We do not want to harm the ants and would prefer to somehow move the colony.

It may a good time of year to do something with a deterrent, as they are very active. I thought we might be able to lift the whole colony, using some sort of bucket, during the night, so they are not away from the nest. I imagine this would cause havoc and might not succeed.

We live in Victoria, on Vancouver Island.
Any suggestions? Any input would be appreciated.



Good afternoon, Joan!

Interesting question! It sounds like you have a colony of the quite charsimatic Western thatch ant, Formica obscuripes, in your yard. Fortunately I have experience with this species, given that there is considerable variation in the construction of thatch nests among the species in North America. Unfortunately, it may not be possible to relocate the colony without destroying it. The above-ground thatch---while impressive in stature, especially in the Pacific Northwest---is not the primary housing-unit of the colony. The thatch is like a compost pile which is warmed internally by the decomposition of the organic material used to construct it. In this way the above-ground component of the nest functions like an incubator, where the ants will place their developing young during the late winter and early spring months, allowing the young ants to grow even when there is snow on the ground. Now, the problem is that the most important members of the colony---the queens---don't like to stay in the thatch part of the nest. The queens are usually encountered in underground chambers which may extend several feet beneath the thatch. Thus, in order to relocate the colony you would need exquisite timing so that way you may move the thatch with the queens in it. Perhaps the best time of day for this would be in the morning or late afternoon when it is cooler out as the queens may migrate up into the thatch (although this idea has not been tested).

If you were to attempt to move the thatch there would be no way to do it without upsetting the workers as they are very territorial and aggressive about their mounds, and there is no guarantee that even if a queen were in the nest that she would be able to successfully excavate a new nest once moved. However, if you wanted to go through with the move I would recommend bringing a few 5-gallon buckets, a shovel, gloves, and duct-tape. What you could do is tape the gloves over long sleeves and your socks over your pants (trust me on this one!), then take the shovel and transfer as much thatch and soil from beneath the mound as fast as possible into the buckets (which hopefully you have lids for). You could take these and dump them together in an area very similar to where the colony is now, presumably near some Douglas firs. You might not have to dig too far down into the ground, as I have found queens at the soil surface and just below---less than a foot. I'm pleased with how considerate you are about these colonies! They may live for over a decade and house several thousand busily working individuals, let alone the fact that this species is ecologically important in your region.

Good luck with the ants, and I hope I helped answer your question!
Brendon Boudinot & the Ant Ask Team

When comparing human infrastructure and ants what would you say is their most common behaviors? Do you think there is anything humans could learn from ant behavior?

Dear Jacqueline,

When human designers, architects, engineers, and computer scientists turn to other organisms for inspiration, it is often referred to as "biomimicry." In recent years, more and more people have turned to the other species on Earth for inspiration. Recent and ongoing work in Biomimicry is highlighted in this TED talk (by the main popularizer of the term "Biomimicry").

However, the speaker doesn't mention much about ants (and neither have I, so far...). One of the reasons ants are so interesting is that they display a wide variety of life-styles, from farming fungi, to raiding termite nests, to foraging in the shifting sands of the desert. And they're able to do all this with very little of what I would call "individual-level intelligence." Ants, like other social insects, function without central control, using what has been referred to as "swarm intelligence." (for more of my ramblings on swarm intelligence, see a previous post here, and also this more coherent article from National Geographic).

So, by studying ants and other social insects (like bees, termites, and certain wasps), we can learn more about true, blind democracies, and how to get things done without central control. For example, by studying processes different kinds of ants (and other social insects) use to find food and tell each other about it, computer scientists and engineers have been inspired to think of new ways to route traffic, solve resource distribution problems, and perhaps even program robots. The tricky thing about biomimicry right now is that many of these are still just potential lessons we could learn from ants - they haven't yet changed the way we get things done in our own lives.

The other tricky thing about biomimicry is that, like things you read in a blog post, sometimes what seem to be cogent lessons need to be evaluated and taken with a grain of salt. For example, in this article, the author uses the example of fungus-growing ants as a system of agriculture that we should learn from (perhaps just because of that charismatic image), but in the same paragraph alludes to the dangers of monoculture, which is exactly what fungus-growing ants (and termites) do: they cultivate a single species of fungus. They can get away with it, because they've evolved the ability to secrete antibiotics and fungicides from glands in their bodies, and they have the labor power to strip acres of vegetation around their nest and bring it back to fertilize their gardens (the most charismatic ants that farm fungi are the leaf cutter ants; other types of fungus-farming ants and termites use some combination of things like soil, partially decayed vegetable matter, the exoskeletons of dead insects, and caterpillar frass to fertilize their fungal gardens). Worse, there are different kinds of ants that make slaves of other ants, ants that are very lazy (surprise!), and ants that just hang from the ceiling all day collecting sugar water in their abdomens (which I would probably try for a while, but might lead to diabetes after a few weeks). So just like the Japanese scholars studying at the "Institute for the Study of Barbarian Books" in the 1800s did with knowledge from "The West," we should study nature (ants included), but pick and choose which lessons to incorporate into the society we wish to build for ourselves.

Hope this helps!
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team


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