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Adam Hart “I’ve come to Trinidad, just off the coast of Venezuela, and I’m on my way to a collect a leafcutter ant colony that sounds perfect for our project. Leafcutters are native here, and they are considered a serious agricultural pest. A farmer had intended to destroy the ant colony that we found. We want to rescue it and take it back to the UK. But digging up a nest of this scale won’t be an easy task.

Professor Adam Hart
Professor Adam Hart

They’re huge. There are tens of thousands of very aggressive soldiers that will come out and bite you, but we’re going to have to do it almost surgically when we begin because we really need to make sure that we don’t kill that queen. The queen is the absolutely critical thing in this colony. We can get away with not bringing all the ants back, but if we don’t have the queen intact, then we are stuck.”

Waiting at the nest site is Andrew Stevenson. Digging up a leafcutter ant colony is Andy’s speciality. He provides leafcutter colonies to zoos, museums and universities all across Europe.

Andy Stevenson Excavator of Leafcutter Ant Colony
Andy Stevenson

Andy Stevenson “I don’t think it’s too big for digging, but what we’re going to do is be going to start at the bottom with a trench, and then take sections as we go back through the bank, hopefully showing a lot of the architecture of the nest as we go.”

At the moment, the only sign the leafcutters are even here is this loose pile of earth produced by the ants as they dig out their underground nest.

Leafcutter Ant Colony

This is because, in the wild, our species of leafcutter tend to be nocturnal. So to get a sense of how big the nest really is, we have to wait for night to fall.

Leafcutter Ant Colony
Leafcutter Ant Colony

So here are leafcutters on the trail, and you can really get a feel for their destructive power. This is a fruit tree, and the leaves are just pouring down out of the tree. All of these fragments have been cut up, there in the canopy, and there are hundreds of ants passing every minute. Just conveying, like a conveyor belt of leaves from the top of the tree, all the way to the colony, which is about 100 metres away up the hill.

It’s easy to see why farmers are no friends of a leafcutter ant colony. From the huge numbers of ants in the soil here, we reckon this colony is at least a million strong, so it’s certainly on the scale that we need for the project. And so many ants mean a large subterranean nest.

So to get a sense of how big a job we’ll face on the dig tomorrow… Andy and I are placing lights at each nest entrance we find. This should show us roughly how big the nest is beneath our feet.

Illuminated Ant Nest Nocturnal Leafcutter Ant Colony
Illuminated Ant Nest

What we’ve done is marked out what turned out to be more or less a circle of lights. It seems to show that most of the activity in this colony is focused on the bank here, where we are going to start doing our sectioning in the morning.

Adam Hart

It’s good news because it means that once we get stuck into that central part of the bank right in the middle of the lights, we should start hitting fungus chambers quite quickly, and with any luck, fingers crossed, we might even get the queen.

It’s the day of the dig, and time to see what the leafcutter ant colony looks like underground. But the ants aren’t about to take our intrusion lightly. This is pretty much the first blow of the spade, we’ve been digging for about a minute, and already, on the surface here, I can count at least 20 or 30 of these big soldiers. It’s made our life a bit more difficult, in a way, because we are now going to be under attack digging this trench. Undeterred by the threat of the soldiers, Andy and his team continue with the dig.

Before long, we’ve pushed back into the nest. What we see is a maze of chambers, connected by a system of tunnels. This natural architecture is what we’ve tried to recreate in building our own ant nest, with glass boxes and tubes replacing the chambers and tunnels. By mimicking a real-world design, we hope to encourage the ants to behave as they do in the wild.

And it’s not just the ants we need to rescue from this nest. The underground chambers are packed full of vital fungus. We need to collect as much of this fungus as we can. Without it, the ants will quickly die.

Search for the Queen Ant

We’ve got into quite a good rhythm, now, really. There are lots and lots of these fungus chambers going back into the bank. Every time you put the speed and pull some soil off it exposes some more, so it’s really just a case of methodically going through them, when they fall out, or when you pull them out, and making sure the queen’s not there, so just keep cutting back, keep cutting back, trying to find that queen.

Natural - Artificial
Natural – Artificial

At the end of day one, we’ve recovered thousands of ants and a large quantity of fungus, but we’ve still to recover the most vital and of all. The queen. Failure to find her means failure of the entire project.

Day two, and the hunt for the queen continues. We’re searching for something quite distinctive. The queen is huge compared to other ants, and she’ll be covered in smaller ants, who tend her.

Mission Success

There she is. The queen, excellent! One ant in two million, and we’ve found her. Through tons of earth, we managed to find the most important and of all. It’s a great relief to the whole team, and it means our project can go ahead. So this is what we’ve been seeking in all our mining. This is the queen of the colony, and I’m going to very carefully pick her up. She is surrounded by attendant workers who are biting me know – ow!

That’s the egg-laying machine that’s at the heart of this colony. And there she is, really to go on her… We’re going to stick her onto a really nice piece of fresh fungus, very carefully, very gingerly, just plonk her on the top, there.

The race against time begins now. We need to get the ants from here to the UK as quickly as possible. After two flights and a transatlantic journey of more than 4,000 miles, the ants arrive at their final destination, the Glasgow Science Centre, where their new home awaits.

In Flight Journey Home
Journey Home

We put the ants and some fresh soil onto the top of the nest. This is our ground level. From here, they make their way down into the nest boxes, like the chambers we saw in the wild. And it’s with some relief that we come across an old friend, the queen. With the survival of the queen confirmed… and the ants exploring their new nest, the signs are good that our colony has survived the journey. Now we are hoping that they’ll take over and complete the building of their new world.

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leafcutter-ant-colony-in-trinidad-collected-by-adam-hart---learned-on-tv-pin
Leafcutter ant colony in Trinidad collected by Adam Hart