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!


25 Responses to “Why put magnetic paint on ants?”

  1. Snig says:

    Ant defense against zombies. 

  2. It’s a weird “past-time”?  Is anyone proofreading these things?

  3. “(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?

    • Sam Ley says:

      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).

      • saraeanderson says:

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

    • blorgggg says:

      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 :)

    • abstract_reg says:

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

  4. anansi133 says:

    Next we should watch someone pull the wings off of flies. Y’know, for science!

  5. SumAnon says:

    ♪ Single Female Lawyer ♫

  6. Robert Hendrickson says:

    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.

  7. BDiamond says:

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

  8. blorgggg says:

    @BDiamond, I would Totally be down for that!

  9. Cornan says:

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

  10. blorgggg says:

    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! 

  11. blorgggg says:

    If you want to see another use of magnetic paint, check out the prototype game, HUNGRY HUNGRY ANTEATERS. Different tools let you explore the materiality of ants! (some of which may be magnetic!) We battle the use ofI use some sticky-hand type material,


    or straight to the video http://youtu.be/PZVHY0Z_uGU?t=14s 

  12. Daneel says:

    Why not put magnetic pain on ants?

    • WhyBother says:

      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.

  13. How long till the human trials?

  14. katkins says:

    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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