23 October 2012

November Science Cafe: The secret life of fire ants


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — You’ve scowled at their mounds on your lawn — and probably destroyed them. But if you come to the MagLab’s Nov. 7 Café, you just may decide not to. At least, not all the time.

Walter Tschinkel, a biology professor at Florida State University.Walter Tschinkel, a biology professor at Florida State University, will speak at the November 2012 Science Café. That’s because the next Science Café features Walter Tschinkel, a biology professor at Florida State University and an expert bar none on fire ants. Tschinkel will share his perspective and knowledge of these tiny creatures and the amazing city-like structures they build beneath our feet on Wednesday, Nov. 7, from 6:15 p.m. to about 7:30 p.m. at Ray’s Steel City Saloon, 515 John Knox Road.

You’ll learn things about fire ants that will surprise you, such as why opting to “live and let live” with some fire ant mounds can make sense. When you attack a fire ant colony in an attempt to kill the ants, Tschinkel says, you often don’t kill off the colony. But you do succeed in getting it to relocate — which only allows a new fire ant colony to move into the emptied spot. The end result: You may have two fire ant colonies in an an area where you previously had only one. So if the original colony doesn’t pose a danger, learning to avoid it may be the best option.

Ant colonies have other intriguing attributes, too.

“Ants are part of a larger functioning entity which we call a superorganism but most people would call a colony,” Tschinkel says. That’s why he and other ant experts often treat a colony and its many thousands of inhabitants as functioning more like one large organism.

In his 752-page book “The Fire Ants” (Harvard University/Belknap Press, 2006) — which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize — Tschinkel pauses between scientific chapters to reflect on the interplay between humans and ants and to offer up playful narratives and anecdotes. He calls these essays “interludes,” and at the Café, he may offer some similar insights on ants and people.

“There are some interesting common threads,” he says. “For example, it’s fairly obvious that the ant colony is a self-organized entity — that is, there is no leader, there is no hierarchy. The ants are behaving according to a set of rules embodied in each individual ... and actually, human society has a lot of self-organized features, too.

“In most human organizations, the expertise isn’t at the level of the directors or bosses, it’s actually at the worker lever, just like it is in an ant colony. So a lot of the products of human teams or groups are also self-organized."

Tschinkel will show images of the intricate and sometimes huge structures ants build below the surface. Even if you had an ant farm, you’ve never seen anything quite like these hidden cities. So mark your calendars and bring all your fire ant questions to the Nov. 7 Café. Arrive early to grab a good seat and order something tasty!