Crawling Communities

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their job and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

samantha_W2_picWhen playing outside, children will often pick up rocks and discover a multitude of alien-like creatures underneath. I was one of those kids who would do so frequently. When I was little, I used to talk to insects often, usually to blow off steam. I would look at the ants that were milling around the concrete, telling them, “You don’t understand how lucky you are. You live the life of leisure, and I have to do homework all day! All you do is walk and eat!” Yes, I was quite an odd child.

Other than that, I never really thought about insects much. Growing up, I was always more interested in the more majestic creatures of nature, like snow leopards or pandas. This totally contrasts the mindset of Ester Chang, a senior keeper of entomology at the San Diego Zoo. When she would pick up those rocks as a little girl, she was mesmerized. She would contemplate how amazing it was, that there were other worlds beyond her own. As Ms. Chang gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the Insect House, I gained a whole new perspective on these very important creatures.

When the sliding doors of the Insect House opened, I was welcomed by the warmness of the museum-like exhibit. The layout of the Insect House is very similar to a museum, except, the “exhibits” are alive. The first exhibit I got to see was a colony of leaf cutter ants. As expected, I saw ants carrying debris and leaves up and down tunnels. But as Ms. Chang took us to see what was really behind the glass, I was astonished.

As we ventured through the white doors and long plastic curtains (to keep the bugs inside and to regulate the humidity) we saw a plethora of insects that were all under the managed care of the entomology staff. The biggest shock to me, though, was that the ants were not enclosed. They were practically free roaming. The tunnels from the inside of the exhibit led into tubes, which went to the backside of the exhibit behind-the-scenes. These tubes led to a feeding station that hovered above a big tank where the queen ant resided.

These ants give off an amazing sense of community. The worker ants are like gardeners or farmers, trimming off the plants and helping to feed the colony. The workers are divided into two categories: the minims and the majors. The smallest workers are called  “minims” who cut leaves and turn them into edible fungus for the rest of the colony. The bigger worker ants, called “majors,” collect the bits of plants. Soldier ants, massive in size compared to their worker counterparts, keep the colony safe similarly to our armed forces. They are highly efficient, clean up after themselves, and take care of their queen.

Ants in general have a huge impact on our daily lives. You may not even realize it, but ants are essential because some help to spread seeds and pollinate plants for both animals and humans to eat. Along with planting seeds, many ants are also skilled decomposers that break down organic waste. In reality, leaf-cutter ants are not so different from you and me. Being a social insect, they have to take care of their family, work, and so on. So, why aren’t there more people that defend insects in general if they are capable of doing such amazing things? Well, it’s likely because it’s hard for us to relate to them at first glance. These spineless creatures don’t seem to be like us at all when you look at them from your backyard. It’s much easier to relate to animals like your dog or cat; we can hear their heartbeats, feel their warmth, and identify key elements of their personalities. Insects, on the other hand, don’t have many visual characteristics we can relate to, but play a crucial role in our ecosystem. Under that rock, there is more to that creature than just taking up space in the dirt. So next time you see an ant or a bee crawling on the floor, fight back the urge you may have to step on it.

Samantha, Real Word Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2014

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