Ants to Invade N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences for BugFest
Zombie Ants are among the ants you can learn about at BugFest, Sept. 17. .
Courtesy of Magdalena Sorger
Ants! What they lack in size, ants more than make up for in numbers, and they offer countless behaviors to explore. Ants are Earth’s first farmers and shepherds, they engineer floating pontoons and enslave other ants, and their combined weight actually equals humanity's. Yet despite all these intriguing facts, we mostly ignore this global community of ants beneath our feet ... except when they enter our kitchens uninvited. Delve into the secret life of ants as the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh hosts the 20th anniversary of BugFest, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 17.
This free event — the largest one-day bug-centric event in the country — introduces visitors to a range of arthropods from North Carolina and around the world. You’ll learn about the coolest ants: from exploding ants that self-destruct to keep predators away, to trap-jaw ants that use their powerful jaws to jump away or toward an intruder, to zombie ants that have fallen under the spell of a fungus. Beyond ants, you’ll see Mexican red-rump tarantulas, brown marmorated stinkbugs, whip-tail scorpions, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, tobacco hornworm hawkmoths, death-feigning beetles and much more.
Photo of Madagascar Hissing Cockroach and friend courtesy of WRAL.com
If looking at all these insects makes you hungry, you can grab a plate of buggy food at the Café Insecta, where local restaurants offer a variety of bug-filled fare ranging from barbecue cricket bug-a-roni to pineapple chili wormsicles. While eating bugs might sound weird, not eating bugs is even weirder. Whether it's Mexican agave worms or South African locust porridge, bug-filled dishes have found their way into the culinary palates of up to 80 percent of countries on Earth. And yes, they’re good for you. Whole insects are high in fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Photo courtesy of Karen Swain/NC Museum of Natural Sciences
Throughout the day, BugFest offers bugs and bug experts, games and activities, live music, movies and presentations to entertain and educate the entire family. Enjoy watching Captain Spalding getting shot from a cannon during the “Alberti Flea Circus,” compete in the “Dung Beetle Battles” at the “Arthropod Olympics,” or watch moon jellyfish receive a veterinarian check-up at the “Window on Animal Health.”
This year, you can also watch and even participate as New York muralist Matthew Willey paints honeybees on a wall behind the Museum’s Nature Research Center. Willey is the founder of The Good of the Hive Initiative and has committed to personally paint 50,000 honeybees — the number necessary for a healthy, thriving hive — in murals around the world. Through art and imagination, The Good of the Hive raises awareness about the current struggle and population decline of honeybees while celebrating their incredible behaviors. Willey has already painted three murals in the Triangle area this summer.
Still hungry for bugs? Stay late and witness a horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants clawing out of the Earth from mile-deep catacombs when the museum screens the 1954 gem “Them!” at 5 p.m. After atomic tests in New Mexico cause common ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters that threaten civilization, James Whitmore, James Arness and Fess Parker jump into action. (Rated PG; 94 minutes.) Admission is free. Before the film, learn about real-life monster ants with NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ myrmecologist (ant expert) Dr. Adrian Smith!
For more information about the event, including a complete list of presentations, exhibits and activities, visit bugfest.org.
Zombie Ants (Pictured above): When air-borne spores of the fungus Ophiocordyceps attach to an ant they soon travel to its brain and change the ant’s behavior. For instance, at the end of the day the ant will climb a tree instead of walking back to the nest. Once on the tree, the fungus tells the ant to find a spot it can bite onto, like some tree bark, a small twig or the mid vein of a leaf. And then it won’t be able to let go anymore — because the fungus says so. The ant ultimately dies of starvation and the fungus starts growing a fruiting body out of the ant’s neck and eventually releases spores into the air that will find their way to the next host ant.
Exploding Ants (Pictured below): Exploding ants (aka. Kamikaze ants) have an unusual defense mechanism. When an intruder approaches the nest, individual workers self-sacrifice by exploding. Colobopsis ants produce a toxic yellow goo inside their bellies that — upon explosion — covers and eventually kills the intruder. The ants first exhibit an alarm response by raising their abdomens. If the invader doesn’t back away, the ants will attack by clenching on to an appendage and exploding. Why the ants go to such extremes to defend their colony is unknown. During my travels in Borneo I often encountered insects that were injured, some with bodies that were half eaten away. Upon looking closely, I could see the remnants of yellow goo on them.
— Facts from Magdalena Sorger, a post-doctoral researcher and ant expert with the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
Photo of Exploding Ant courtesy of magdalena Sorger
Jonathan Pishney is head of Communications for the NC Museum of Natural Sciences