biologists and artist make fire ant art

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of creating this month’s biocreativity blog header image in Dr. Larry Gilbert’s “Fire Ant Lab” at Brackenridge Field Laboratory (or, BFL for short) – an 88-acre field station at the University of Texas at Austin. As you know from my post from last month, I’m really into time-lapse. After the July 2011 biocreativity header image and video using native plants from my backyard, I started brainstorming on what else I could use to create interesting header images and time-lapse videos for the blog. Of course, I wanted to do something with animals – but how would I keep anything still long enough to spell out b-i-o-c-r-e-a-t-i-v-i-t-y, and how could I get enough of any one kind of animal to do it? Then it hit me: FIRE ANTS!  What if you could make fire ants spell out ‘biocreativity’ and then all walk away? So, With the help of Dr. Rob Plowes from the fire ant lab, his excellent team of research assistants, my husband and his tripod and the BFL deep freeze, I set out to create the August 2011 biocreativity header image and time-lapse video using the South American red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta). Here it is if you didn’t get to see it earlier.

biocreativity | august 2011 title from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

As a former teaching assistant for a lab course in field ecology methods at BFL, I was familiar with the work of the fire ant lab, so I knew a few “tricks-of-the-trade” when it comes to ants that could make for a really interesting biocreativity project. Two natural history characteristics that make these invaders very good at what they do also worked to my advantage in this project.

First, fire ants make rafts. Literally. They link themselves together to make a raft formed from of their own bodies, which helps them disperse during floods to found new colonies. This phenomenon got quite a bit of media attention last April when researchers Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu published the findings of their research on the water repellency of fire ants and how they cooperate to make rafts in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  It was covered by NPR, The Huffington Post and Scientific American among others. Their project is yet another great use of time-lapse that helped to visualize and explain how natural phenomena work, and it helped Mlot and colleagues make some very interesting discoveries about biomimicry which may have technological applications in developing new waterproof materials.

Rafting not only helps the fire ants live to colonize another day, but it’s also used to the advantage of researchers studying fire ant behavior and how to control the spread of this invasive species. In Dr. Gilbert’s lab where I met up with Rob Plowes, he showed me how they use the natural tendency of fire ants to raft as a means of easily separating hundreds of thousands of fire ants from the soil they’re collected from so they can be used to study this invasive species. In short, when they dig up fire ant mounds from the field, they place the dirt mixed with ants in 5-gallon buckets. They then bring them to the lab where they slowly drip water into the buckets overnight. This ‘rising tide’ of water in each bucket prompts the ants to dutifully gather up their brood and make for the surface where they all gather together to form a large raft.

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from

Here is a figure from Nathan Mlot, Craig Tovey and David Hu's paper "Fire ants self-assemble into waterproof rafts to survive floods" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Available from

The research in the BFL fire ant lab is focused on developing effective biocontrol agents for S. invicta, and they’re doing it using very species-specific parasitic phorid flies (Pseudacteon sp.) which interrupt foraging and other behaviors which can end up making colonies less successful in the long term. You can take a really cool virtual tour of how they conduct this research here. Thanks to these generous researchers, the problem of where I was going to get enough ants for this project was solved. They simply set aside a single tray of tens of thousands of fire ants when they were done with their research for my project.

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory

A tray of South American Red Imported Fire Ants (Solenopsis invicta) from the Fire Ant Lab at Brackenridge Field Laboratory.

Now that I had enough ants, how was I going make them be still long enough to spell out the title? Well, I was introduced to a similar problem when I was the teaching assistant for Dr. Gilbert’s field ecology lab. We taught our students how to conduct ant diversity surveys by baiting for ants, usually by setting out a piece of hot dog, which any picnic-goer knows is irresistible to ants. We quickly captured the ants on the bait with a plastic baggie (reminiscent of the process of picking up after your dog) and brought them back to the lab to identify to species and count. The problem was, how do you count all the individual ants when they won’t be still? The solution lies in the fact that ants are exothermic (or “cold blooded”), meaning they get their body heat from the external environment and are less active at cooler temperatures. So, we simply put the bags of ants in the freezer to immobilize them. Once frozen for 10-30 minutes, students had a limited time window to count the ants until they warmed up enough to start moving again. It’s amazing how long it takes for this to kill the ants – usually well over 12 hours of deep-freezing! For my project, I simply put the tray of ants from the fire ant lab in the freezer while we set up the video equipment.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

A tray of fire ants is immobilized in the deep freezer.

To create the title image, I made a stencil to spell out ‘biocreativity’ on which I sprinkled the immobilized ants. One thing that made this a little difficult was the same thing that allows the ants to raft – their legs stick together, so instead of little individual ‘sprinkles’ I ended up with more of a flocculated mass of ants that stuck together a little bit, making the letters seem ‘fuzzy’ around the edges. Also, if you ever do a project where you pour ants through a stencil, make sure you pick a font with block letters. The angle on the “t” I used gave us a bit of trouble, but it turned out OK. Some forceps and pin tools helped clean up the edges, and after a few takes, we had a pretty good image and — if I do say so myself — a pretty darn cool time-lapse.

Here’s the making-of video that shows how we did this, along with some outtakes that show some of the difficulties we had getting the ants to go through the stencil just right. Many thanks go to my husband, researchers Dr. Rob Plowes and Dr. Larry Gilbert and the hard-working crew of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory fire ant lab. Enjoy!

biocreativity | making of august 2011 blog header from h. gillespie on Vimeo.

And, yes — because I’m sure you’re wondering — I did get stung twice…in the name of biocreativity!


Thanks to Scott Chamberlain at r-ecology for sending me this article in the Guardian about collaborations between artists and scientists. The article opens, “Science and art are often considered opposites – so what happens when top practitioners in each field collaborate?”. Well, I think you know what I’d call it. Biocreativity! The article describes four very interesting collaborations between an artists and geneticist, a poet and speech scientist, a photographer and physiologist and theater director and neuroscientist. I think what I find most interesting about the article are the comments. This is probably the most intense discussion of the intersection of arts and sciences I’ve seen in a while. Interestingly, while I (and several of the commenters) tend to see this intersection as more of a continuum, many of the commenters seem to need to classify works as one or the other: artistic or scientific, and are staunchly defending their views. What do you think?


And…I’m back from a quick bout of post-ESA 2011 exhaustion (a few more posts on the way from ESA by the way)!

Loved Julie Palmer’s quick post last month on Bioephemera about a recent NYT article featuring graduate programs. The commissioned art for the piece strikes me as a more “serious”, NYTimes-y version of Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics (which was also featured recently in the NYT). I don’t have to tell any of you graduate students out there how great Cham’s uncanny depictions of your life actually are. According to the NYT article, he started writing the comics as “therapy” for coping with grad school. Even with no formal training in the arts, he’s made a career out of his creativity, and I think we grad students are all in his debt for bringing a little humor to our strife.

On the one hand, cartoons have the potential to engage us in biology without worrying too much about being ‘serious’. Exhibit A, Natalie Dee:

Thank God I'm Not an Earthworm by Natalie Dee. Available from

Thank God I'm Not an Earthworm by Natalie Dee. Available from

Cartoons also have the potential to bring awareness to how science can be perceived (or be ignored) in our culture. Again, Natalie Dee:

It's Gonna Last Forever Because of Our Unlimited Supply of Dead Dinosaurs by Natalie Dee. Available from

"It's Gonna Last Forever Because of Our Unlimited Supply of Dead Dinosaurs" by Natalie Dee. Available from

They can also serve as commentary on the process by which scientific research is sometimes (but not always!) conducted, as Cham often does with PhD comics:

Independent Research Study (c) Jorge Cham 11/17/1997 Available from

Independent Research Study (c) Jorge Cham 11/17/1997. Available from

If you didn’t know PhD comics movie is coming soon, hold on to your freakin’ hats, because it’s almost here!

Comics can also help describe some of the more endearing qualities of we who practice science (Randall Munroe of is very good at this):

Finally, no post on biology humor would be complete without a nod to Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Out of greatest respect for my favorite comic of all time, I can’t post one here. Here’s why. I’m sure many of you out there know of some great bio-comics! Let me know about them with a comment!

biology + album cover art

As an alternative to the rising cost of attendance at our institutions of higher learning, consider just going to your local record store instead. There, you have access to a variety of educational resources for exploring such diverse subjects as…

anatomy + physiology

 biodiversity studies


environmental studies

Featuring such educational tracks as “crocodile hand luggage”, “snakeskin tracksuit” and “high protein snack”.


Who knew they could be born with stripes?


invertebrate zoology

mammalogy + ornithology


This public service announcement was photographed at End of An Ear in Austin, TX and is sponsored by the Ridiculous Education Costs Offset by Record Didactics (R.E.C.O.R.D) educational program.

cover art on scientific journals

Thanks to a presentation yesterday at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Austin for alerting me to the art featured on the cover of the scientific journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. I was pleasantly surprised to find a gallery of cover art on the journals website. For each issue, there is a short article describing the relationship of the cover artwork to the research featured within. Most of these appear to be written by Polyxeni Potter of the CDC in Atlanta. I would love to know more about that job, writing art-cover-story pieces and how they relate to the science featured in each issue!

Cover for Volume 10, No. 2. Liu Sung-nien (1174–1224), Sung Dynasty. Lohan (1207) National Palace Museum, Taiwan, Republic of China. Hanging scroll, ink and colors on silk (117 cm x 55.8 cm) Available from:

For the issue pictured above – the 2004 edition on SARS research – Potter writes:

Knowledge, a communal effort laboriously assembled piece by piece, relies on swift and purposeful give and take. Non-human primates more than once have held valuable clues to human puzzles, from AIDS to hepatitis. Sometimes the vehicle, but more often the oracle of zoonotic scourges, they have shared with us generously. In this the Chinese Year of the Monkey, the long arm of the gibbon may yet reach across the seas with seeds of knowledge for the global health community deciphering the puzzle of SARS.

Furthermore, I love what the CDC has to say about the relationship between art and the science featured in their journal:

Images for the cover of Emerging Infectious Diseases are selected for artistic quality, technical reproducibility, stylistic continuity, communication effectiveness, and audience appeal. The images, which are published with permission of the artists or other copyright holders, are drawn from many periods (ancient to contemporary) and are used to “humanize” and enhance the scientific content by illustrating ideas, raising consciousness, revealing truth, stimulating the intellect, and firing the emotions.

The cover story has evolved by popular demand, literally out of the journal readers’ wish to know the art and how it relates to them and to what they do. A sketch of the artist, period, and work, provides contextual knowledge, and a brief interpretation offers a link between the art and the human elements and goals of public health. The reader becomes familiar with the work, and in the end is surprised and, we hope, enlightened.

You may also enjoy the cover of Volume 11 No. 4 on insect vectors of disease featuring the art of Albrecht Durer and Volume 10 No. 8 on avian vectors featuring the art of Emily Carr. Yet another elegant and creative way to help make the biological sciences more relevant via the arts, and vice-versa. Enjoy!