Come Squeeze A Ball Of Fire Ants With Us

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Insect behavior is a fascinating thing. Individually, tiny bugs can’t accomplish all that much, but when they cooperate they can dominate an environment. Take fire ants. These venomous little buggers are easy to deal with one at a time, but when they gang up to raid your pantry it can be nearly impossible to get rid of them. The way ants clump up and disperse based on environmental stimuli was the subject of a recent study at Georgia Tech, and the end result is pretty fascinating.

They conducted the experiment by dumping thousands of insects into a measuring device called a rheometer, which is typically used to measure the resistance of more conventional substances. They then administered shear forces to the ants at a variety of speeds, from 0.0001 rpm up to about 100 rpm. As the speed increased, viscosity decreased – the faster they went, the more fire ants “played dead” to avoid injury.

Alberto Fernandez-Nieves, an associate professor in the School of Physics, said “It’s not unlike ketchup. The harder you squeeze, the easier it flows. But with ants, this happens much more dramatically than with ketchup.”

In certain conditions, fire ants will also mass together into shapes like a giant ball as seen in the video above. Scientists hope to study these mechanics in more detail to create self-healing materials in the future.