Ants. They aerate the soil, invade the kitchen, and ruin picnics. But this summer, they’re in the spotlight at Sacramento State’s Sequoia Hall lobby as the University’s latest Living Gallery exhibit.
This isn’t your typical ant farm ordered from the back pages of a comic book. This version, sponsored by the Biology Department (www.csus.edu/bios), is 1 inch deep, 36 inches wide and 30 inches tall. About 90 red harvester ants are inside, digging tunnels and chambers and otherwise going about their little ant chores.
The exhibit is open for viewing during the University’s summer hours of 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, through Aug. 14.
The farm is crisscrossed with tunnels, and a lighted, movable magnifying glass has been placed in front of it so visitors can get an up-close-and-personal view of the ants’ activities. The display includes a number of informational placards describing the life and activities of the busy insects.
“Normally they harvest seeds, going onto flowers to pluck them out,” says staff biologist Merrill Roseberry, who is overseeing the exhibit. “These ants are known for building little chambers as granaries. In spring and summer, they find as many seeds as they can and store them in the granary. Then they have food all through fall and winter.”
Other ant species have specific traits – herding other insects such as aphids, or capturing other ants as slaves. And duties for an individual ant may change because of special circumstances.
“If a tunnel were to collapse, there would be ants responsible for saving other ants while others would be responsible for re-digging the tunnel,” Roseberry says.
Some species even have “mortician” ants, responsible for carrying dead ants to a special cemetery chamber specifically for the deceased.
Despite the University being on summer break, Roseberry expects to welcome a steady stream of visitors. Incoming Sac State students are expected to swing by during their orientation sessions throughout the summer. Children from Peak Adventures’ camps for children will drop by, as will those from the campus daycare center, and local summer school programs.
The farm consists of only sterile female ants – no males or queen. Since the ants’ life expectancy is only 45 to 60 days, Roseberry will be getting a second supply of them to replace those that die off over the summer months. Once the new school year starts, the farm will be moved into her office until the last remaining ants expire; it then will be cleaned out.
Part of the reason for choosing an ant farm as the current Living Gallery exhibit is because it fits into the theme of the 2015-16 One World Initiative. Each year, a One World theme is chosen to be discussed and explored across the campus and across academic fields, and this year’s topic is “Global Perspectives on Power.” “Ants have an extreme amount of strength and power,” Roseberry says. “Also, ants have a worldwide impact, causing significant changes in the soil.”
This is the second in a series of Living Gallery exhibits designed to provide dynamic displays and rare views of the life of plants and animals. The first was this spring’s popular corpse flower exhibit. Possible future exhibits include a butterfly display (following them from caterpillar to butterfly), domestic beetles, or rodents.
But for now Roseberry stays busy caring for the ants, giving them water in the form of soaked cotton balls, and feeding them pieces of fortune cookies. “Fortune cookies are sweet and dry, and the ant can break them apart easily and carry the bits around,” Roseberry says, adding with a laugh, “They’ve been really happy with fortune cookies.”
For more information on the Biology Department and the ant farm, visit the department’s website or call (916) 278-6535. For media assistance, call Sacramento State’s Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156. – Craig Koscho