Why put magnetic paint on ants?

It seems like a weird past-time, magnetizing ants, but it has some practical purposes. At his blog, media engineer Andrew Quitmeyer explains how he mixed magnetic powder into insect-safe enamel paint, and what he was able to do with it.

The big benefit to something like this is that it could allow scientists to easily alter the populations of social insect groups. Each colony of ants functions, in many ways, like a single organism. So what happens to that hive mind if you remove all the ants doing one particular type of task? Instead of painstakingly picking out each worker with a pair of tweezers every time you want to try this, you could create a colony in which all the workers have had magnetic paint daubed onto their abdomens. Then, you could quickly and easily collect some of them, or all of them, using a magnet. Hunting ants with a tweezer once > hunting ants with a tweezer over and over and over.

Another, possibly less legitimate, use of the paint is demonstrated by Quitmeyer in this video. (Quitmeyer, for the record, is not a social insects researcher.) Using single painted ants in a population of unpainted ants, he plays around with the way colonies remove unhealthy members of their own community. When a magnetized ant starts flopping around erratically in response to a nearby magnet, nearby ants quickly react.

As Quitmeyer says in the video, this demonstration quickly passes from science into mad science (or, at least, YouTube science).

Thanks to Leah Shaffer!


  1. “(Quitmeyer, for the record, is not a social insects researcher.)”

    If this were an interesting musical creation would we feel the need to assert that the person “is not a musician” just because he doesn’t collect a paycheck for it?

    1. I think the comment was more to remind people that this isn’t what actual research is like, though I suspect many people imagine it as such. Not that Quitmeyer isn’t doing something interesting and potentially useful, it just isn’t formal research at this point (whether or not he is being paid for it).

      1. Maybe it’s just to hold off the “cruelty to animals” flamewar that always ensues, so no one’s going “And IRB approved this?”  

    2. Howdy guys! Interesting discussion. For the record, my PhD (which I’m just starting cracking on) is on the topic of “Digital Naturalism.” The idea stems from the fact that new technology typically only comes to play in lots of animal behavioral science during the official experimentation and analysis stages, and is very useful for extracting quantitative data. However, I feel that there is an way to complement the more positivist elements of science by working with ethologists to design “performative tools” which can be used in the earlier “assay” stages of science. Here they are getting to know their organisms, their peculiarities, and building tacit knowledge with their subjects before they meticulous craft and implement their actual experiments.   It’s a process aiming to combine performance studies, critical making, and bio-media, to provide novel insights for scientists and hopefully empower their entire experimental process.
       My goal is to make it back down to panama this summer to work with my ethologist friends, set up a tropical jungle “maker-lab,” and do some situated digital design work connecting people-organisms-and digital agents and craft some fun, insightful performances and cybiotic artifacts! So wish me luck!

      Also, so, officially, I am a digital media student, working in a robot lab, that studies insects, and works with social insect scientists.but why we gotta put labels on things :)

    3.  Well, does he consider himself a social insects researcher? Self-identity is pretty much identity.

  2. Man, if this didn’t just just become my new favorite show! “Oh, we better bite him in the head to calm him down.” Whoever writes this stuff is hilarious. Will definitely be giving Two Broke Girls a run for their money.

  3. How’s about we paint Quitmeyer with magnetic paint and pull him around with a giant electromagnet, like the ones used at junkyards?

  4. Wow. I’m glad so many people are rushing to the defense of the ants. THEY’RE FREAKING ANTS, PEOPLE.

    1. If you kill a mouse or a rat in a trap, few people are going to object. But if you videotape it and post it to youtube, it’s going to raise some eyebrows. This video isn’t so extreme as that, and if the guy were a real researcher making an authentic case for a scientific theory, he’d get a pass. This is just some yahoo harassing the wildlife and filming the results for amusement. It’s not axe murder creepy, but it’s kinds gross. That’s my artistic critique of the performance.

  5. This is Quitmeyer! I apologize that I tend to refer to all the lovely lady ants as “guys” or “he.” All the ones you see there are wonderful Aphaenogaster cockerelli ants. Just sleep deprived, and the cultural norms of speech take over! 

    1. I was sold on the idea as soon as I read it!

      Although upon reflection, I may have been slightly biased by the Etch-A-Sketch+Ant Farm=Insect-O-Sketch from MST3K.

  6. Not to get all scientific or anything, but since it seems likely that a lot of ant communication is pheromonal, how is he controlling for chemicals released by the dead ants, regardless of which colony they come from, and for those release by ants in (magnetic) distress?  

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