Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2012, edition of The New York Times. The videos mentioned here were submitted by entomologists for the 2012 ESA YouTube Your Entomology Contest. To see them, visit http://nyti.ms/SOlvzX.
As soon as the ants start streaming across the screen in the video “Ants Africa,” you know trouble is afoot — on many, many feet actually.
You know this partly because 36 seconds into the video, these words appear on screen: “A raiding column of female ants is on the hunt for prey,” and partly because of the ominous bass-driven music, “Mind Heist,” from the trailer to the movie “Inception.”
Clearly, this video is not going to have a happy ending.
These are predatory ants. They are fast. They are numerous. And they are living the purpose-driven life, the purpose being to kill some termites for lunch. Sure enough, the screen informs us, “Within a few minutes, a thousand termites are dead.”
“Ants Africa” is the winner in the Open category in the 2012 YouTube Your Entomology Contest, a competition sponsored by the Entomological Society of America, which recently held its annual meeting in Knoxville. The entries in this category and others can be viewed online, along with videos from the past three years. The contest started in 2009, and the top winners receive $200 and a trophy.
The videos offer a mix of entertaining natural history dramas like “Ants Africa” and earnest, instructional presentations, like “Soybean Aphid Speed Scouting — How To?,” which won in the Outreach category.
They also offer hope for amateurs who have marveled at brilliant professional insect documentaries by the likes of David Attenborough. These are videos made by professional entomologists, but decidedly amateur videographers.
Just as bird-watching became a possible hobby for the average person after World War I, when good binoculars became available to the public, watching and recording insects on video is now possible if you can afford a few hundred dollars for a camera.
I talked to Marlin E. Rice, who made “Ants Africa,” about how he did it. Dr. Rice, who started the video contest, is a former president of the entomological society and a former professor of entomology at Iowa State University. He now works for DuPont Pioneer on the resistance of genetically modified corn to insect pests.
He and his wife regularly go to Zambia to do volunteer work at an orphanage through their church. While there, he carries his video camera, which he bought a few years ago for “a couple hundred dollars,” he said. “It’s an old Sony model, only 2.1 megapixels.”
In Zambia, he said, the ants were a regular sight, and whenever he saw them on the march, he would set down his video camera and record them.
“That video has footage from five different trips to Zambia,” he said.
He edited the footage with iMovie and added the soundtrack, which struck him the first time he heard it.
“When that heavy bass came along when I was listening to ‘Mind Heist’,” he said, “I could picture ants crossing a landscape.”
His video had some impressive competition, like “Life in the Gutter,” a look at the kind of insect life that can thrive in less than pristine urban water flows, and “Hornworm Meets ‘Alien’,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
In that entry, a horrifying number of parasitic wasp larvae — tiny translucent wormy things — tunnel through the skin of their host, a tomato hornworm, a large, green caterpillar that, if it hadn’t been eaten from the inside out, would have grown up to be a Carolina sphinx moth.
No music is necessary for this video to ruin your lunch (I was eating at my desk when I started it and had to stop and come back to it later), but the cheery Latin brass and drums do enhance the pageantry of parasitic infection.
All of the videos that feature insects (some focus on entomologists, who are much less interesting than their subjects of study) should inspire other amateurs, and that alone makes the contest a worthy enterprise. Dr. Price, though, said it was really designed just to encourage society members to have a bit of fun with their profession.
Once a video goes on YouTube, anything is possible. As soon as I started watching “Ants Africa,” for instance, an ad popped up for “NY’s #1 Pest Pro.” A bit harsh, I thought.
But if you stumbled upon the video by mistake, of course, the availability of exterminators might be comforting. The company does promise same-day service.
From The New York Times, Nov. 19, 2012. © 2012. The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution or retransmission of the Material without express written permission is prohibited.