Glasgow. Not the natural home for leafcutter ants. But over four weeks the science centre here will play host to our ambitious project. Our goal, is to unlock the secrets of the ant colony.

Well, the stage is now set for our remarkable experiment. It’s hot and humid in here, and everything you see here is based on real-life.

Well, this is normally all you’d see of a leafcutter ant colony, the bit above ground – ants taking bits of leaf underground. Now, like an iceberg, the main event isn’t the bit you can see, it’s what’s happening beneath, and that’s a part of the ant colony that even scientists like me rarely ever see.

Glasgow Science Centre
Glasgow Science Centre

In the wild, the leafcutters dig huge underground nests. We’ve used their natural design to inspire our own creation.

Down below here, underground, we’ve tried to recreate what an ant colony would look like. These boxes represent chambers in the soil, and the walkways are tunnels in the soil by which the ants can access all parts of the colony.

George McGavin
George McGavin

But the leafcutters need more than just a nest. They also need to feed . we’ve built them a whole environment where they’ll be able to search or forage for food as they would do in the wild.

We’ve got plants in certain areas joined up to a main foraging area with these rope walkways. Now, in the real world, in the natural habitat, these would-be creepers and other plants. Now, as you can see, there are no ants in it yet, but there will be.

Secrets of the Ant Colony

In a short while, we’ll let the ants loose over this whole new world we’ve built for them. And over the next month, I’m going to be really interested to see how they take control of it and how the colony develops.

Professor Adam Hart
Professor Adam Hart

Joining me is Prof Adam Hart from the University of Gloucestershire. He’s studied the leafcutters for over 15 years. He’s helped design a series of experiments to uncover how the colony works. And the first thing he’s going to do is help us see inside one of the boxes.

Adam, what’s happening inside the box?

Adam Hart “Hundreds of ants are attacking this camera! Let’s just try and wiggle it around a bit.”

Now that box is absolutely swarming with ants, and they don’t seem terribly happy with your camera in there. This is my first glimpse into the hidden world of our ant nest. In the wild, this would be an underground chamber, excavated by the ants themselves. And inside here is something of vital to the colony.

Adam Hart “This grey material here is fungus, in fact, which they’re farming inside the nests. They are using those leaves that they cut to help them grow this fungus.”

Leafcutter ants, despite their name, don’t eat leaves. They bring them into the nest as a food supply for this fungus, and it’s the fungus that they eat. Our ants are farmers, and the fungus is their crop.

This means I can see right into the nest, I can see the fine details of their normally hidden lives. This is just incredible.

Soldier Ants

Ant Brood Secrets of the Ant Colony
Ant Brood

In among the fungus, the white, translucent shapes you can see are the brood. That’s the young of the colony, the eggs, larvae and pupae. Here we can see the adults attacking the camera, whilst in the background, the brood is whisked away to safety.

All that brood, every single egg, is laid by one ant – the queen. She’s hidden somewhere deep within the nest, and hopefully we’ll be able to track her down later. Right now, I want to open up this box and get my hands on some ants.

Adam Hart “Let me just get a bit out. I’ll try and avoid getting a big soldier.”

The soldiers, as the name suggests, are ants who protect the secrets of the ant colony. They are big, and they bite.

Adam Hart “I haven’t managed to avoid a soldier.”

Biting Soldier Ant
Biting Soldier Ant

One of them has just bitten my hand. …Ah! There is a massive soldier – who has just found a crease in my skin, has sunk her jaws right into my skin, that’s actually quite painful. Now, you can see why the soldiers are so good at defending the colony.

Adam, I think it had enough of holding this.

The soldiers are just one kind of ant in our leafcutter colony.

Ant Castes Secrets of the Ant Colony
Ant Castes

Now, the first thing that is really obvious when you look at an ant colony is that the adult ants seem to be of different sizes. No, it’s not because they are not fully grown, it’s because they are different castes of ants, and under here I’ve got three different castes of worker ant. In the insect world, a caste system means that individuals differ in shape and size within a single species.

Ant Castes (Secrets of the Ant Colony)

Ant Head
Ant Head

So you can see the range of size from the very, very small workers, to the middle-sized workers, and the very large workers here. And they’re different sizes for a good reason. Each of these castes of ants have a different job to do. I’ve already had a painful encounter with one of these, a soldier. That head isn’t filled with a large brain, rather a massive set of muscles to power a fearsome pair of jaws, or mandibles, strong enough to cut through my skin.

Going down the size scale, this small ant is called a media worker. These are the ants that collect and bring leaves back to the nest. Its serrated jaws are just the right shape for cutting into tough plant material.

At a the very bottom of the scale are the minima, the most numerous ants of all. These tiny nest mates effectively turn the leaves into fungus and tend to the brood. So the first thing we learn from our colony is that the labour is divided between all its members. Each caste of ant has a role to play.

To allow us to investigate how all these different castes organise themselves and work together, we needed a supply of ants on an epic scale. Not just a handful bred in a laboratory, but a thriving, working colony from the wild. And Adam was given the job of tracking one down.

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Secrets of the Ant Colony with George McGavin