Ants: A Long Journey from Arizona to Ottawa

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.

Two people bend to look at a disk-shaped, clear container on a counter amid terrariums.

Catherine Couture and Stuart Baatnes observe a Pogonomymex rugosus harvester-ant queen. Image: Lyndsey Sullivan © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

More than a dozen ants near a hole in rocky ground.

A harvester-ant nest entrance in Arizona, USA. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A man uses a brush on an incomplete, foam-board structure in a workshop.

Stuart builds a nest at the museum for harvester ants. Image: Catherine Couture © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

View into an ant nest through the transparent side of its container.

Honeypot ants of the species Myrmecocystus mendax at Ray Mendez’s laboratory in Portal, Arizona. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A cross-section view of the interior walls of a man-made ant nest.

The nest built at the museum by Stuart for honeypot ants. Image: Catherine Couture © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A hat is placed next to a harvester-ant nest in the Arizona desert.

A harvester-ant nest in the middle of a desert. The circumference of the nest is about a metre; the hat provides a sense of scale. The area around the entrance has been completely cleared. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

A thorny sprig of red and yellow flowers.

Honeypot ants like to forage on thorn-bush flowers. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

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!

A man stands in an arid landscape in front of low plants and a large rock outcrop.

Stuart Baatnes in the Arizona desert. Image: Stuart Baatnes © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

View of the inside of a white plastic box containing ants, sand, and small, open plastic containers.

One of the two colonies of harvester ants that Stuart brought back from Portal, Arizona. Image: Catherine Couture © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

This entry was posted in Collections, Exhibitions, Live animals at the museum and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Ants: A Long Journey from Arizona to Ottawa

  1. Chuck Clark says:

    I love the reason you give for the stone moat around the museum. Museum secrets. I always thought it was merely a runway for every-single-kid-period (they love it).

  2. steven leclair says:

    Awesome, just awesome.

  3. meadowmice says:

    I love reading your posts. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: Amazing Ants | Canadian Museum of Nature – Blog

  5. Pingback: Ottawa Giveaway alert - The Hidden Life of Ants >> a peek inside the fishbowl

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