Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ant Farm Sculpture

Let's file this under Experiments That Failed. Last summer I was walking home and discovered an ant swarm. This is a yearly event much anticipated by anyone that happens to be a weirdo. It is the time when an ant colony, in response to internal biological pressures, begins producing fertile females. Usually a colony is made up of a queen, her sterile daughters (numbering in the hundreds or thousands) and some male drones. The pheromone tyranny of the queen renders all her daughters unable to produce young, even if they had the sperm to help things along (and they don't have the sperm, either.) But as a colony grows, the queen's stink-shackles reduce their hold and some winged, fertile females are born. Coincidentally, there are winged males born at the same time. The swarm occurs when these flight-capable youngsters fly out of the colony to mate. They do so in the air. Mated males drop to the ground soon after. They die. Unmated females lose the energy to fly after a while, too. They drop to the ground, crawl around. They die. Mated females, on the other hand, drop to the ground and begin searching for a good place to begin a colony of their own. If such a place is found, they burrow into the ground and chew off their own wings in an effort to get enough protein to lay their first eggs. Often they will feed a portion of the eggs to any larvae that emerge. Tough love, Mom.
But sometimes a swarm is interrupted in mid-flight, scooped into a jar and taken to a downtown apartment. There, they toil for a new purpose; ant farm sculpture. I wanted to keep an ant colony for a while, let them tunnel and feed and grow. Then I would pour plaster into the vivarium, coating the entire network of branching tunnels, murdering the innocent insects inside. When it all dried, I would be left with a negative image of their progress, their architecture.
So, here I am with a brand new ant colony. We've all heard about how ants are capable of lifting many times their own weight. But what's amazing is that they do this relentlessly. The ant farm seemed to be going really well, what with all the many-times-their-own-weight-lifting. My plan for ant farm sculpture was working out so far. But I left town for a couple weeks. With no honey and water to feed themselves, the colony died. I imagine that there were some grim times at the end; cannibalism, betrayal, tender moments, etc.
But for me it just meant that I got to try out the plaster experiment a little earlier. I prepared the plaster, poured it in and waited patiently for it to dry. But it didn't go well. The ant sculpture I had hoped for didn't emerge from the mold. I was left with only a partial image of Ant Colony A. There was little of the detail that I wanted to display. I wanted the ant's efforts writ large and coated in smooth white for all the world to see.
Did my plaster mix need a little more water? Did it need a little less? Or is it possible that the ants failed me?

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