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VMNH gets antsy with newest exhibit
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VMNH Executive Director Joe Keiper discusses the behavior of ants Thursday during a preview of a new exhibit, “Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants.” (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Friday, May 2, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Anyone interested in insects will be antsy to see the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s newest exhibit.

“Farmers, Builders, Warriors: The Hidden Life of Ants” debuted Thursday at the museum on Starling Avenue in Martinsville during a reception for invited guests. The exhibit officially will open to the public Saturday during the museum’s annual Bug Daze festival, to be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The exhibit includes close-up photos taken by Dr. Mark Moffett, a research associate in the entomology department at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, of ants in their natural habitats.

Moffett has been interested in ants since his childhood and studied them around the world, according to the exhibit.

Exhibit visitors will learn how interactions between ants are similar to, and different from, those of humans. Much attention is given to how they work together and communicate, particularly in searching for and handling food.

Like most humans, ants are social animals who work together to get things done that an individual cannot accomplish alone, the exhibit shows.

“There is not an independent ant in the world,” said Joe Keiper, the museum’s executive director and a bug expert.

Each ant in a colony is delegated a certain task. For example, some ants will capture prey — such as another insect — and cut it into parts for easier handling. Larger ants then will transport the prey while smaller ones will help, such as by filling up holes in paths back to the colony for easier transport.

Ants form colonies and distinct paths between them much like cities and highway networks that people create, a photo in the exhibit shows.

However, a major difference between ants and humans, the exhibit points out, is how they communicate.

Ants, unlike people, do not communicate with vocal sounds. Instead, they use pheromones (chemical signals), physical touch and vibrations of their bodies to communicate messages to their colony members.

Ants in the same colony give off the same scents. That helps ants identify members of their colonies, the exhibit states, because they are unable to discern fine details of each other’s individual appearances.

If ants come into contact with ants giving off unfamiliar scents, they either flee or start attacking each other, afraid that the strange ants will take their food or disturb their nests, the exhibit shows.

But their attacks usually are not fatal. They instinctively know not to bite one another because their mandibles — appendages at their mouths — would stick into them like fish hooks. There is no way to remove the appendages without the ants dying, the exhibit explains.

Keiper said ants are interesting and important to study because “most are critical to our forests and ecosystems.”

For instance, he said, some types of pests they eat would flourish and some types of plants would not germinate without ants.

Despite their valuable roles in nature, ants also can be pests.

“You don’t want them in your home” because they can attract hundreds or even thousands of other ants roaming in search of food, Keiper said.

He admitted that he — the bug enthusiast — has killed ants in his home, although he loves to watch them in their natural surroundings.

“I’m an entomologist, but I’m a realist,” too, he said.

The exhibit soon will feature a live ant colony from Trinidad. It has not yet been put on display because the ants are being treated for jet lag, having been stressed out from their flight, a sign shows.

According to Keiper, the ants are large “leafcutter” ants that visitors will be able to watch more easily than smaller types of ants found locally.

The ant exhibit is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Traveling Exhibition Service. The museum is affiliated with the Washington-based Smithsonian.

The exhibit will be on display through July 5. Regular museum admission prices apply.


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