BBC Wildlife Division’s Natural World series tells the natural history of the honeypot ant (Myrmecocystus mimicus) in the Arizona desert. This is the first footage to show honeypot ant queens co-operating in the wild. Filmmakers spent 150 days in the deserts of Arizona, US to capture the behavior of the ants. Filming the foundation of a new colony was a considerable challenge because the insects rarely ventured above ground. The team was fortunate enough to witness a mating swarm that happens only once a year.
The documentary follows a new honeypot ant queen founding a new colony together with a few more queens. She then wages an Machiavelli style battle for survival as her colony grows. Eliminating rivals with ruthless efficiency, sacrificing thousands in her quest for domination, murder, cannibalism, genocide – she will do anything to keep her crown.
Empire of the Ants is the epic story of one honeypot ant queen’s dramatic rise to power and her brutal fall from grace.
Ant expert Professor Bert Hölldobler of Arizona State University said: “These queens were not related… They originated from different colonies, but nevertheless they co-operated during colony foundation. The main reason for that seems to be that young colonies compete with one another and raid each other, stealing the brood from other colonies. The larger the colony, the better it is at raiding neighboring colonies.”
Bert Hölldobler is a leading entomologist (scientist who studies insects). He collaborated with Harvard ant biologist E.O. Wilson and developed the field of Sociobiology. He first documented the “slave-making” behaviour of honeypot ants in 1976. Since then, he has studied the ants’ complex social behavior.
Just like in this documentary filming a subterranean organism is impossible without keeping a colony in captivity. While watching many such documentaries perhaps you yourself always wanted to keep ants right where you lived but thought terrariums required the expertise and money only available through natural history museums or nature centers. Think again. It is indeed an art to maintain an ant colony. If you do it right you can join many people who do just that.
Artificial nests enable observation of the diverse natural history of ants normally hidden underground. It enables intimate observations of the life cycle and above ground “out world” activities of these amazing social animals.