Thursday, February 23, 2012

2012 Insect Fear Film Festival promotes fascination with reel ants, real ants

2012 Insect Fear Film Festival promotes fascination with reel ants, real ants

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In anticipation of the 29th Annual Insect Fear Film Festival, which they will host Saturday on the U of I campus, this week’s segment is written and narrated by four members of the Entomology Graduate Student Association: Michelle Duennes, Rob Mitchell, Laura Steele and Andrea Walker.

This year, we’re celebrating international ants and taking a closer look at a few of the remarkable species found around the world.

Two notable groups of ants occur in Central and South America: leaf-cutter ants and bullet ants. Leaf-cutters are known for trimming pieces of leaves, which they bear back to the colony by way of long, meandering trails. There, the leaves are used in vast fungus gardens. The ants feed on this fungus, essentially farming their own food. [Photo of leaf-cutter courtesy of Alex Wild. See more of the coolest insect photos on the Web at]

Less numerous but far more deadly, the bullet ants found in this region of the world are to be appreciated from a safe distance. The sting of a bullet ant is described by stinging insect specialist Jason Schmidt as “pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”

Of all of the ants, weaver ants of east Asia may possess the most unique nest-building behavior: they weave leaves into homes by using a silk their larvae produce. The adult ant carries the larva in its jaws and rubs it against the edges of leaves to sew them together. These arboreal nests were used in ancient China as the first “biological control” – the nests were connected to citrus trees with ropes, and the ants moved among them and controlled insect pests.

Equally amazing are the trap-jaw ants, which can be found all over the world. These diverse and fearsome insects possess powerful mandibles with a spring-loaded mechanism that inflicts a deadly blow to their prey. They also use their mandibles to catapult themselves into the air, artfully escaping would-be predators.

The last stop on our tour takes us down under to a unique group of ants present around the world but most common in Australia: the Dracula or vampire ants. This ancient group of sightless ants uses elongate mandibles and a harsh sting to paralyze the venomous centipedes. Because adult vampire ants can consume only liquids, they feed these centipedes to the larvae in their colony. Then they earn their name by cutting open the larvae with their mandibles, and draining small quantities of blood, or hemolymph—with minimal harm to the larvae.

Insects are always moving to new parts of the world, usually with some unwitting help from humans, and ants are at the forefront of these invasive species. Managing and preventing the spread of invasive ants and other insects area top priorities of researchers worldwide.

Many people are familiar with red fire ants, which entered the United States through ports and are well known for their ferocious stings. Another species, the Argentine ant, has formed massive supercolonies stretching hundreds of miles in California.

At this year’s Insect Fear Film Festival, we will be showcasing Hollywood’s interpretation of international ants, with films depicting radioactive imported ants in Los Angeles and some South African ants that have taken an unhealthy interest in human skeletons. We’ll contrast these with some live ants on display, including Dinoponera, one of the largest ants in the world.

The Insect Fear Film Festival will take place at the Foellinger Auditorium on the UI campus, with festivities beginning at 6:00 p.m. Further details available at