When I learned the museum had sent Stuart Baatnes from the exhibits department all the way to Arizona, USA, to get live ants, I admit I was quite surprised. I wondered what on Earth was so special about them. And since I am doing an internship in the same department, I wanted to find out more about this fascinating expedition.
Since I had worked for several years in a garden centre, I knew a lot of people would be asking the same questions. Why bring ants into a museum? Generally speaking, museums take every precaution to avoid an invasion of ants!
For example, have you noticed the crushed rock that surrounds the museum in Ottawa? It is a safety perimeter to reduce the risk of an ant infestation inside the building. And that is just one of many measures taken to prevent an infestation that could destroy the museum’s collections.
I wanted to learn more about these little creatures and what makes them so special. Stuart went to get two colonies of what are called honeypot ants, or Myrmecocystus mendax, as well as two colonies of Pogonomymex rugosus, more commonly known as harvester ants.
Stuart’s trip required over five months of preparation with heavy logistics, particularly trying to obtain all of the necessary permits in both the United States and Canada. But why travel over 4000 kilometres for some ants?
The answer is simple: these ants, which are found in the southwestern United States, are more adaptable than others to change and are highly resistant to stress. The museum did not yet have these varieties, which will be joining the other live animals in our Animalium.
They are also an interesting acquisition to present as part of an ant exhibit, which is why you will be able to observe the honeypot and harvester ants at the museum’s Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants exhibit starting on July 26.
Stuart visited the laboratory of entomologist Ray Mendez in Portal, Arizona, to retrieve the ants and learn how to build them a habitat. An experienced entomologist, Ray is extremely familiar with this type of insect and its needs. He was a big help to Stuart.
These ants have distinctive features that make them very interesting. For example, honeypot ants produce nectar, like bees do, which they use as an additional food supply during periods of shortage. At the museum, we feed them fruit, which provides them with an excellent source of sugar.
Harvester ants are highly venomous, so you mustn’t crush them or eat them. They can lift up to ten times their weight. They have a very peculiar way of building their nest: they create a wide clearing around the entrance.
To retrieve the harvester ants, Ray had to wait until the time of the year when the future queens leave the nest to found other colonies. That is how we were able to obtain two harvester-ant colonies.
Collecting a honeypot-ant colony is somewhat easier, but a challenging task nonetheless. You have to dig all around the nest to retrieve the insects without damaging them.
What climate do these two types of ant generally live in? Stuart travelled to Arizona, where the climate is very hot and dry. So hot, in fact, that Stuart hadn’t been there 15 minutes before he got a sunburn!
Once transported to Canada, the ants have to adapt to a new climate. We have to let them slowly grow accustomed to a higher level of humidity. How? We gradually increase the level of humidity of their habitat at the museum.
These little critters from Arizona travelled a long way to get here. The carrier even lost them for a time along the way, but luckily they reached us safe and sound. We will thus have the good fortune of observing these ants in their new habitat at the museum and learning more about their lives.
This article was translated from French.