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Honey Pot Ants Colonizing Sweet Collaboration at Museum

Honey pot ants get their name from the swollen amber-colored belly full of sweet nectar that has been sustaining the colony, desert predators and even people for centuries on the Colorado Plateau.

World-renowned ant expert Gary Alpert, Ph.D., a Museum of Northern Arizona Research Associate and retired Harvard Associate, says these industrious little insects have a complex community-centered society. They also have a story of survival to tell – survival in the high desert, where temperatures can reach triple digits and droughts can go on for years.

That story is soon to be unveiled in living, crawling color at the Museum of Northern Arizona in an exhibit, “The Ant Empire: Strength in Community,” about ants of the Colorado Plateau scheduled to open at 2 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 16. The day will include talks and presentations.

The effort to create the arts and science learning environment is a collaboration involving MNA, Babbitt Ranches, local scientists and the Bynar family, through Isaac’s Ant Foundation.

The first installation is a colony of honey pot ants raised from a queen (Ant Melba) from Babbitt Ranches and nurtured by Charlie Bynar and her husband, Chris Kirkendall. “It is mounted on a cabinet at kid height and equipped with a bore scope that will feed live images of the colony to a large flat screen that is mounted on the wall so all can see easily,” said Bynar. 

Dr. Alpert also is displaying a colony of honey pot ants collected from the Babbitt Ranches Antelope Study Area on the CO Bar Ranch. This colony is located at the Center for Biocultural Diversity of MNA’s Colton Research Center across Highway 180 from the main exhibit museum.

“There will be a living colony there for all to see with the queen, the workers, the eggs and larvae,” said MNA Interim Director Laura Huenneke, Ph.D. “People are intrinsically drawn to any living animal exhibit and something like these honey pots that have such specialized adaptations, a bizarre and fascinating lifestyle and a big cultural value in the Southwest will be mesmerizing to kids of all ages, one to 99.”

The inspiration behind the project comes partly from the life of Isaac Bynar Calley, a Flagstaff teenager who held a love, understanding and fascination for honey pot ants and other small, often stepped-on creatures. 

“He absolutely understood how
the vulnerable, the weak, or the
less fortunate were overlooked and underappreciated,” said Charlie, an artist and nurse. “He also loved the social community of ants. I think he thought humanity could gain a lot by working together.”

Charlie put Isaac in touch with Alpert, who has been studying colonies on Babbitt Ranches.

Alpert explains there are more than 300 ant species on the Colorado Plateau. A honey pot ant nest can go nine feet underground with caverns carved out of the sides in the main channel. The queen is tucked away at the bottom of the nest. The repletes (the honey pots with the swollen stomachs) live above her in the caverns. Gorged with food by the workers, they do not move, they just hang from the ceilings of their caves. The workers force-feed the repletes and use them as a living pantry, and that is how the colony survives, especially during seasons of scarcity on the plateau. 

“When the workers get hungry, they crawl up the sides, get to the top of the ceiling and get regurgitated food from the honey pots by using their antennae to do a little drumming,” he explained. “It forces the honey pot to open its mouth and regurgitate liquid.” 

At the bottom of the food chain, honey pots are eaten by a number of animals. “Badgers, coyotes, other ants, birds, horned lizards and Native Americans all have fed and survived through harsh times by eating the repletes,” said Alpert. 

Babbitt Ranches President and
General Manager Billy Cordasco, an MNA Research Associate, says the exhibit is an extraordinary fit with Babbitts’ emphasis on science research, conservation education, cultural understanding and art appreciation. “It is a true honor for us to participate in this wonderful effort to carry on the research of one of Flagstaff’s young scientists. Isaac’s life is a testament to the joy of discovery and the impact of careful observation.” 

Isaac died in April 2017, from an epileptic seizure at age 16. As a young person with special needs, his mom says he became a champion and protector of vulnerable people and creatures.

Isaac’s Ant Foundation has continued to nurture ant collections, making them available to learning institutions in the United States and Canada. Isaac’s Ant Foundation also has created an endowment at Coconino Community College to provide scholarships to individuals with special needs who are pursuing science education.

The museum is planning ongoing programs to be offered in connection with The Ant Empire: Strength in Community exhibit, including school field trips aligned with science standards. FBN

By Bonnie Stevens, FBN

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