To Fathom a Colony’s Talk and Toil, Studying Insects One by One

From The New York Times:

Ants Anna Dornhaus is peering into a cardboard nest box only an inch on a side, at a “family” of 100 or so European rock ants. Known as Temnos, the ants — painted in primary colors — are going about their ant chores hauling, foraging, nursing the glistening maggoty brood. Next to a color-coded Temnos, a rice grain would look like an old-growth log. When the lid on an ant colony is raised, a whiff of dead cockroach — ant chow — wafts by. A quiescent larger queen is a study in brown. “She’s hardly a head of state,” Dr. Dornhaus said. “More like an ovary.” Nearby are bumblebee hives under glass in which each bee sports a number from 1 to 100 on tiny price-tag-like label attached to its back.

To understand what is really going on in a colony of ants or bees, Dr. Dornhaus, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, tracks the little creatures individually — hence the paint and the numbers. Individual ants, she said, have “their own brains and legs, as well as complex and flexible behaviors.” She continues, “Each ant’s behavior and the rules under which it operates generate a pattern for the colony, so it’s crucial to discover its individual cognitive skill.” Dr. Dornhaus, 34, a tall, blond German-born scientist, has great patience, a prime requirement in her trade, and a feel for the creatures she studies. When people find out that “I study ants, bees and other crawly things, the first thing they ask is do I know how to kill them.” She added, “I wouldn’t tell them if I knew.”

More here.