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Ants Update

Worker ant climbing along sycamore leaf. Notice the thoracic spikes and large mandibles.
Worker ant climbing along sycamore leaf. Notice the thoracic spikes and large mandibles.

Our colony of Atta cephalotes, more commonly called leaf cutter ants, is now well established at Winchester College Science School and they are hard at work excavating their nest, caring for 20,000 new eggs each day, and of course cutting leaves! This particular colony was a pest in a sugar cane plantation – we have “rescued” them from extermination and shipped them over from Trinidad and Tobago, fungus garden and all.

Having now dealt with a broken glass tank, a Christmas power cut and a leaky moat, we now have the most interesting display that could ever be part of a biology department. Students on their way to lessons can pause and watch large solider ants guarding workers who are carrying leaves three times their size along 20 metres of Perspex tubing that even curls up to the ceiling.

“It’s the best thing ever, so useful for our science and Div lessons” – Head of Biology. “This is so cool. I could stand here for hours” – An enthusiastic top year. 

The foragers are making the most of the spring browse we have provided, and are currently favouring cherry laurel, sycamore and apple leaves. They will cut crescent shaped slices, carry them all the way back to the nest colony, impressively scaling a 3 metre vertical climb, and then pass the leaves on to the fungus farmers. Leaf cutter ants don’t actually eat leaves! They drink the sap for energy, and use the leaves as fertiliser for their Leucoagaricus fungi, which in turn feeds the queen and the brood. Our set up even outshines the Marwell Zoo tropical house colony, and is an ideal opportunity for curious students to learn more about the natural world. This is a key element of my job as the Duncan Louis Stewart Fellow of Natural History, and it will continue to inspire a love of the natural world even after my time at the College has ended.

All photos are taken by Eve Cavey, and all ants shown are from our colony.

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Winchester College Society
73 Kingsgate Street
SO23 9PE

+44 (0)1962 621264
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