GASTONIA — The world of ants is tucked away just under your feet.
It’s an intricate, highly regimented insect society that conducts business out of sight from most humans. A new traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution that opened Saturday at Gastonia’s Schiele Museum of Natural History explores this diverse world.
“Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants” gives visitors a view from ant level.
Previously on view at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., the exhibit will be at the Schiele Museum, which is an affiliate of the Smithsonian, through April 6 when it will continue a 15-city tour through 2015. The Gastonia stop is the only one in North Carolina.
“This exhibit is a look into a world we’re usually walking over the top of,” said Schiele President/Director Ann Tippitt. “Any time we can expand what we do and give our audience something new and different is an important goal to us.”
The Schiele is one of seven museums in North Carolina and two in South Carolina that are Smithsonian affiliates. In Charlotte, the Carolinas Aviation Museum and the Charlotte Museum of History are affiliates. The York County Culture & Heritage Museums in Rock Hill are also affiliates.
The Schiele exhibit includes live ants, an aluminum cast of a harvester ant nest, a touchable sample of a similar nest cast and a touchable bronze model of a leafcutter ant 50 times the actual size.
At the heart of the exhibit are 40 macro photos by noted photographer and entomologist Mark Moffett, described by National Geographic magazine as “the Indiana Jones of entomology.”
An international explorer, Moffett is the author of “Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions.”
At the exhibit there were hands-on activities in which kids could make ant book markers, draw ants with crayons and craft ant eyes out of recycled egg cartons, pipe cleaners and a hot glue gun.
That afternoon there was a showing of the 1998 animated comedy “Antz,” about a misfit worker ant.
Dawn Flynn, the Schiele’s adjunct curator of entomology, gave visitors an overview of the exhibit.
“Most people think of ants as pests,” she said. “But they’re integral for the survival of all animals and humans.”
Ants aerate the soil and take seeds from destructive plants such as weeds, which helps keep weeds under control. And ants feed on the caterpillars that eat good plants.
Flynn said ants are also involved in the breakdown of decaying plants and animals, stemming the spread of diseases. In the U.S., she said honeybees are the top pollinators of plants. Worldwide, ants are No. 1.
Commenting on the exhibit’s name, “Farmers, Warriors, Builders,” Flynn said tropical leafcutter ant colonies are examples of farmers. These ants cut leaves, take the plants into underground tunnels with chambers and grow mold and fungus.
Army ants in Africa and Australia are warriors. These colonies fight each other and “other living things, insects mostly,” Flynn said. With its large mandibles, or jaws, the Army ant resembles the king-size killer ants in the 1950s sci-fi movie “Them” and the raging insectoids in the 1997 film “Starship Troopers.”
African weaver ants are builders – taking larvae in their jaws, squeezing and creating silk that’s used to tie leaves together and make homes for ants.
Flynn described the ant caste system – the queen at the top and below a hierarchy of workers doing up to 45 different jobs, all focused on the colony’s survival. Workers live up to two months, queens up to 20.
Calling the ant world “phenomenally complex,” Flynn hopes people who come to the exhibit will get “a better appreciation for how important ants are for our survival and that they don’t just think of killing them, but understand that ants are a part of life.”
On Saturday morning, Laura Winchester, 29, and her 8-year-old son, Gavin, of Cherryville took their time looking at the exhibit.
“I don’t know much about ants,” Winchester said. “But he loves bugs.”
“And arachnids, too” Gavin added.
He thought ants were cool and was already looking forward to the Schiele’s summer camp called “Creepy, Crawly, Scaly & Slimy.”
‘Thirst for science’
Neal Slimick, 32, his wife, Meghan, 31, and their children, Sophie, 7, Jonah, 4, and Masie, 2, also enjoyed the exhibit.
“It’s too cold to do anything else and we needed to get out of the house,” said Neal Slimick of Gastonia. “But the Schiele is a fun place; the kids love it. I don’t know anything about ants. But I’m learning and I’m sure I’ll get educated on the way home.”
Expressing her opinion of ants, Sophie said: “I like them. I’m learning about them. I like that they take care of their babies, that they collect food for their babies.”
Helping out on opening day was retired physics teacher Suzanne Riley, a member of the Schiele board of directors.
“I love ants,” she said. “They’re helpers, soil-builders, decomposers.”
As she watched visitors come and go she hoped the exhibit would inspire “a thirst for science and the natural environment.”