How to make a giant aluminum ants’ nest

The internets have been abuzz with this photo today:
ant nest

It’s a photo of an aluminum cast of an ant nest made by Walter Tschinkel, a Florida entomologist–but there haven’t been a lot of additional details.

The nest you are looking at is one of a Florida harvester ant, and appeared with many other photos and casts in a 2004 paper about nest architecture in the Journal of Insect Science.  They are things of great beauty, and tell us a lot about how ants build.

The uppermost portions of a medium-small Pogonomyrmex badius nest
The uppermost portions of a medium-small Pogonomyrmex badius nest

This series of photos, for example, shows how the complexity of the nest structure grows as the colony adds workers.  You can find more amazing photos of different types of ant nest casts here in a 2012 article.

There is even a video of the process of making these casts! And yes, don’t do this at home. Even if Dr. Tschinkel did publish detailed instructions on all the different ways to make an ant nest cast.  I am looking at you, Mr. Treelobster.

I would be remiss if I did not also link to this older video that uses ten tons of cement to discover the extent of a much larger African South American ant nest. (I am told it’s Atta vollenweideri, and it was dug up in South America. Thanks for the correction!)

Tschinkel W.R. (2004). The nest architecture of the Florida harvester ant, Pogonomyrmex badius., Journal of insect science (Online), PMID:

Tschinkel W.R. (2010). Methods for Casting Subterranean Ant Nests, Journal of Insect Science, 10 (88) 1-17. DOI:


A fabulous new development in louse control! I’ve written before about the problem of head lice becoming resistant to commonly used pesticides, making treatment much more difficult.  A new device received approval from the FDA to be this year–and it’s a lot of hot air.
No, really:

Goates, B., Atkin, J., Wilding, K., Birch, K., Cottam, M., Bush, S., & Clayton, D. (2006). An Effective Nonchemical Treatment for Head Lice: A Lot of Hot Air. PEDIATRICS, 118 (5), 1962-1970 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2005-1847

This device is a great story of how basic ecological research can lead to improvements in human health.  It all starts with birds.

Those of us who keep chickens or work with wild birds know that they have an amazing assortment of ectoparasites–parasites that live on the outside of the body (“ecto” = external). Most of these are called “feather lice.”

Feather lice are a fascinating group of animals; the researchers in this lab have studied, among other things, how lice have evolved to match the color of their host birds.  I think it’s safe to say that Dr. Dale Clayton, the lead researcher in this story, is Mr. Bird Lice.   Over the last 2 decades, he’s published a steady stream of fascinating papers (and books!) about lice and their co-evolutionary relationships with their hosts.

It was because of Clayton’s research that the University of Utah lured him away from his job at Oxford in the late 1990s.  Unfortunately, Clayton discovered exchanging  jolly old (damp) England for Utah’s arid climate made keeping his lousy subjects alive extremely difficult.  In fact, his lice colonies dried out and died.
Having dead research subjects will put a serious dent in one’s research productivity.

His travails in lice-rearing, however, were what set a lightbulb off when his children came home with head lice. If his research lice dessicated and died, could he make head lice dry out and die too?  Alas, it proved to be a much harder puzzle than he thought:

“Over the next several years a variety of methods were tested in Clayton’s lab, ranging from the use of chemical desiccants, to heat caps fitted with electrodes, to rice bag caps heated in a microwave, to various hair dryers and blowers up to the size of a leaf blower

His lab website says that “student volunteers” were used as his guinea pigs. Once again, a novel use for graduate students is discovered!graph of results

After almost 20 years of tinkering, the Lousebuster is now FDA approved and on the market. It also happens does a really, really good job of killing the insects using only hot air!

I know what you are thinking–unfortunately, it is not enough to have a blow-dryer, as you can see here in the results comparing the percent of lice being killed with different methods.  (I also am rather relieved that wall-mounted hand driers were not effective.  I can only imagine the lines at the airport bathroom if families traveling decided to do a little de–lousing between connections.)

The other nice item is that the company selling the Lousebuster requires that anyone purchasing them be certified in their use.  That means that no one should have a scalded scalp, and it should actually perform at the 95-99% louse mortality levels reported in various publications.

A newer version released December 2010 is quieter and “works on curly hair”.

So hoist one to toast Dr. Clayton and his lab in their demonstration of how basic research  pays off for all of us!!