To study the architecture of ant colonies and their nests, specifically the nests of teh Florida harvester ant, entomologist and myrmecologist Walter Tschinkel developed a way to “record” their three-dimensional underground chambers: he pours 1200F molten aluminum into the hill and then excavates the hardened cast. The entire process can take around seven hours.
From the tunnel depths, patterns, variations, the “room” arrangements, and more, these resulting casts are full of information about different ant colonies and their behavior:
“You can see that where there’s a lot of traffic near the surface, the shaft is actually a ribbon, a wide tunnel like a superhighway,” he says, gesturing to and describing the incredibly intricate ant architecture. “The more traffic it has, the wider it is.”
And beyond that, the sculptures mix science with art. But, of course, there’s a cost of insect life in this process:
“I don’t do it lightly, actually… The technique has helped prove that colonies can thrive up to 3.6 metres deep and house between 9,000 and 10,000 workers.”
Filling the nest with molten aluminum (or concrete, as shown in this rather stunning abandoned ant hill video) started an interesting discussion in our house: sacrificing an entire ant colony to learn about it — agree or disagree? And why?
Related reading: Not All the Bugs In Your Home Are Bad.