Thursday, February 21, 2008

25th Annual Insect Fear Film Festival features social insects

25th Annual Insect Fear Film Festival features social insects

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

It may not reflect well on us, but I think we humans are never more fascinated with other forms of life than when they remind us of ourselves. Maybe that explains why social insects, which are the focus of this year’s upcoming Insect Fear Film Festival, make such good characters in animated films.

Since Hollywood insects play by their own rules, I checked in recently with members of the U of I Entomology Graduate Student Association, which hosts the festival, to learn about what makes real social insects so fascinating. EGSA members Nils Cordes, Rob Mitchell, and Annie Ray joined me today to tell us a little bit more about them.

[Nils] As scientists we describe true social insects as having three qualities. First, they work together to raise their young in a sort of society, called a colony. Second, they have a reproductive division of labor, which means that only some (or one) of the insects in the colony actually make eggs. And finally, there are overlapping generations within the colony.

[Annie] It turns out that everyone is familiar with true social insects, because they’re some of the most common insects around! Ants, bees, wasps, and termites all satisfy the conditions, and even children know a little about their life history. These insects live and work together in huge colonies, each with a defined job--a lot like how humans live in cities. But what most people don’t realize is that the analogy keeps going. Ants and termites have invented agriculture, and farm vast fields of fungus using scavenged leaves and debris. Ants will also ranch aphids as if they were cattle, “milking” them for sugary honeydew, protecting them from other insects, and even carrying them to new pastures. [Photo by Rob Mitchell: Carpenter ants tend aphids on a plant stem at Starved Rock State Park.] Termites erect what are essentially skyscrapers for their colonies, the largest of which may stretch to 30 feet in height – if you consider this on a human scale, these would be towers reaching thousands of feet into the air!

[Rob M.] Even though it’s winter, you can still find some social insects outside. Bumble bee queens are just starting to emerge from their winter sleep. Flip over an old log, or tear off some bark, and you can find termite workers and ants scurrying through wooden tunnels. And later in the spring, take a closer look at the aphids on your roses before you let loose with the insecticides, and you might even see some ants tending to their flocks.

[Annie] Of course you can also enjoy social insects, both real ones and Hollywood types, at the 25th Annual Insect Fear Film Festival this weekend. Displays at the festival will include live bee colonies, termite workers, and giant tropical ants, as well as many other (nonsocial) insects. In a break with tradition, the films to be shown at this year’s festival are neither horrible, nor scary. They are the 2007 feature, Bee Movie, written by and featuring the voice of Jerry Seinfeld, and the 1998 film Antz. As an added bonus, the director of Bee Movie, Simon Smith, will be on hand as a keynote speaker.

The 2008 Insect Fear Film Festival will take place Saturday, February 23 in Foellinger Auditorium on the University of Illinois Campus. Admission is free, and festivities begin at 6:00 p.m. More details are available via the Insect Fear Film Festival web page at