Molten Aluminum + Ants = BUG FAIR!

May 15, 2014

A note about specimen sacrifice: We do not advocate needless killing of any creature, big or small. Unfortunately, there are aspects of science that we are unable to examine without sacrifice.

Photo by Doug Booher.

Photo by Doug Booher. A note about specimen sacrifice: We do not advocate needless killing of any creature, big or small. Unfortunately, there are aspects of science that we are unable to examine without sacrifice. The ant nest that was used for our cast was sacrificed to create an amazing and permanent research and educational tool. The loss of one nest allows us tremendous insight into this species, which will benefit future efforts at understanding and conserving these native insects. As a research natural history museum, specimens are prepared and maintained at the highest museum standards, so that they will be available for researchers in perpetuity. By Emily Hartop The BioSCAN crew dug ourselves into a hole last weekend when we journeyed to Anza-Borrego to cast ourselves an ant nest from molten aluminum! This amazing sculptural project was made possible by Aida and Armando Gonzalez, and led by the incomparable myrmecologist Doug Booher, a Ph.D. student at UCLA. If you'd like to see the six-foot-tall results of our day in person, you will have to come visit the BioSCAN table at Bug Fair , but read on for some information about the process, and the ants that built the nest!

Photo by Doug Booher.

Photo by Doug Booher. Meet Myrmecocystus navajo, a species of honeypot ant. Honeypot ants are aptly named — they use workers called "repletes" to store nectar (collected from plants and other insects, such as aphids) for the colony. These repletes can get so engorged with honey they look like squishy, glistening marbles as they hang from the top of inside chambers. You can see some photos of repletes here. We chose to cast the nest of this species for its size, complexity and beauty. First task of our day in the desert was to locate a suitable ant nest. Below, you can see our chosen nest. Although from the surface this nest is just a hole in the ground, we were tremendously excited by what we knew was hidden out of sight!

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop. Next step was to fire up the kiln to melt us some metal! Crafted by Doug using techniques developed by Walter Tschinkel (detailed PDF of his techniques here), the kiln is powered by charcoal (and physics) to get hot enough to melt aluminum (Lisa is pictured with our raw material, below).

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop. The kiln, like a barbecue, takes a while to heat up. Once hot, we added the aluminum to the interior compartment (called a "crucible") and let it melt. Below, you can see Doug right after he pulled the full crucible from the kiln in preparation for the pour.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop. It's Pompeii for ants as Doug pours in the molten aluminum. A moment of silence, please...

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop. Now the fun really began...as we dug...and dug...for hours...and hours...in the hot desert sun, with the wind fiercely blowing sand all around us. In the picture below, you can see the sand whirling around Lisa as she worked down in the pit. Why are we digging? Regrettably, one cannot simply yank a nest casting out of the ground. One exhumes it, inch by inch.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop. The final product was a nest over six feet deep — we hope you are able to come see it (and us!) at Bug Fair this weekend. Doug Booher, who led our trip, will be there so you can meet him. A big thanks from BioSCAN goes out to him for all his amazing efforts to make this dream project a reality! Big thanks also go out to Walter Tschinkel, the myrmecologist who refined the technique of casting ant nests and passed his knowledge on to Doug. Previously, casts were made with plaster and other materials that made storage and transport difficult. He is pictured, below, on his porch in the California desert celebrating a (different) successful day of ant casting.

Photo by Emily Hartop

Photo by Emily Hartop

(Posted by: Emily Hartop)

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