At Ars Technica Live this month, we had the pleasure of talking to ecologist Neil Tsutsui, who runs the Tsutsui Lab at UC Berkeley, where researchers study the behavior and communications strategies of ants. In a sense, Neil is trying to figure out how to talk to ants. Of course it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Ants are blind, so they “see” the world by using their antennae to smell and taste everything around them. To communicate with each other, ants use dozens of chemicals naturally secreted by their bodies. Sometimes they lay trails of pheromones to guide each other to food, and sometimes they’ll put one drop of a chemical on a leg and wave it in the air that it evaporates and spreads to other ants on the wind.
Neil’s lab is at the forefront of cracking the ant code. They’ve figured out how to lead ants around by manufacturing a copy of the trail pheromone. They can make ants scatter in fear by using alarm pheromones, and they’ve created “friend” pheromones that ants in the same colony use to recognize each other. But Neil and his colleagues can also do even weirder things, like make ants “fetch” a piece of styrofoam by painting it with a larva smell. The confused ants think it’s a larva that’s escaped the nest, and race to bring it home.
Ultimately the point of Neil’s work isn’t to mess around with ants minds, though. He’s interested in ant behavior, and how these tiny animals work together to create eusocial colonies. We talked about different kinds of colony behavior, and how there is a huge range of survival strategies among ants.
Argentine ants, the tiny brown-black invaders you’ve probably seen in your home, have many queens in each colony. But every year, the workers murder roughly 95 percent of the queens a few months before mating season. Nobody knows why. Even stranger is the behavior of “slave-making ants,” also known as kidnapper ants. These are ants who steal larvae from other ant colonies, raise them as their own, and then force them to do all the work in the nest. Then there are the vampire ants, who drink the blood of their larvae. We got into even weirder behaviors from there, and talked about how these strategies make sense from an evolutionary perspective.
We also discussed Neil’s interest in citizen science. He’s working on a set of projects called Backyard Biodiversity (you can participate too!), where participants gather samples of insects, test natural ant repellants, and more. Researchers in his lab also lead small groups of citizen scientists on expeditions to record the biodiversity in various regions, using the app iNaturalist.
You can watch past episodes of Ars Live here. If you’re in the Bay Area, join us on the second Wednesday of every month at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland.