From the earliest times, people have found sustenance and solace, challenge and mystery in the natural world. Perhaps that’s why an anonymous American artist is getting international attention for turning anthills into a lucrative business; giving new meaning to the term “sacrifical casting.”
A video recently posted to YouTube shows how this particular form of art is made — by pouring a pot of molten aluminum into an anthill, excavating it and then hosing off the dirt with water.
The design of these anthills varies depending on the species of ant. Some ants create soft, low hills out of dirt or sand. Others create towering creations of clay. All anthills are intertwined with many chambers, which are connected by countless tunnels. These small rooms are used for storing food, nurseries, and even as resting places for the worker ants.
Since each of these individual sculptures involves the destruction of an entire living colony, making art from anthills has been the subject of online criticism. As one commentor so kindly put it, “This douchebag didn’t make these intricate designs, the ants did.” On the other hand, many people are arguing that this activity by itself doesn’t necessarily bother them because these are suburban colonies that would likely be sprayed with pesticides by homeowners anyway.
It’s definitely a slippery slope for the conservation of colonies rather than a problem that needs immediate attention. If a market were to develop around these sorts of pieces, that would involve countless entrepreneurs treading on public lands to cast molds and killing off large numbers of colonies. Then, we’d have a legitimate conservation concern on our hands.
On the bright side, a broader dissemination of these ant casts may help people appreciate the little creatures.
Walter Tschinkel, a myrmecologist and former professor of Biological Science at Florida State University, was the first to develop the complex nest-casting techniques that creates these wondrous, chandelier-esque shapes. He recognizes ants as “some of nature’s grand architects.” Some early myrmecologists even considered ant society as the ideal form of society and sought to find solutions to human problems by studying them.
Tschinkel discovered that ant colonies can be up to twelve feet deep and house between 9,000 and 10,000 workers. In fact, ants in general move more earth (soil) than any other organism, including earthworms. Back in the 1980s, he made plaster casts, which did not vaporize the ants, and was able to break apart the plaster and count them.
“The disadvantage of plaster casts is that they break easily so after you dig them up, you have to glue the pieces back together again,” Tschinkel said in a 2008 interview. So, like the anonymous artist, Tschinkel began pouring molten aluminum down into anthills.
Check out this other video where researchers pump concrete down an ant hole and then slowly, carefully excavate the site to see what an ant colony looks like. The result is an intricately designed structure equivalent in labor to humans building the Great Pyramid of Giza or Great Wall of China.