Another wonderful invertebrate post from Rachael, the Museum’s entomology specialist, below. Remember her last post on Scorplings!? (It’s a must read!) Enjoy.
In Life’s Devices, inside a large glass container, there are a series of domes and pipes. Within that structure lives a huge colony of Atta cephalotes, which over the course of the last seven years has grown to 20,000 members. Long before the advent of agriculture, the leaf-cutter ants were feeding on fungus they grew in their own gardens, using their saliva and leaf trimmings. Some scientists estimate about fifteen percent of the leaves growing in the Neotropics are used for this purpose. Here at the museum we bring them a large bouquet of foliage to cut each day. By we I mean Leon Bradford, Insectarium Manager, and myself. Together, we are the museum Attas only enemies.
Our goal is to provide for the colony, but sadly for us, they do not share this view. A small, round door, only 6 inches in diameter is our only option for feeding, watering and cleaning up. The application of a bead of liquid Teflon around the opening is used to keep them at bay, but now their numbers allow them to break through that barrier in only a couple of days. It was on such a day, when the ants came pouring out, that I decided to cut my task into two parts. I would take the trash away then return with my long glove and some fresh browse. Hopefully they would calm down in the meantime.
When I returned, a group of giant soldier ants had gathered to await me, and a rare opportunity for battle. Despite my glove, I was afraid. Even Leon, the Ant Whisperer, avoids the fearsome razor sharp mandibles of the soldiers. I didn’t want to open that door, but what good is an Entomology Associate who won’t tend the ants? Then I saw it, another portal near the top of the enclosure, no ants in sight. Accessing it required me first to climb into the container with the fungus gardens, then fully insert my arm into the “above ground” chamber, followed by a careful extraction. Convenient? No, but until we get that flip-top lid we dream about, it’s worth it.