Currie Lab

Lab Blog

Winter is Coming

Monday, October 10, 2016
by Caitlin Carlson

Currie Lab carefully cuts leaves off of Red Oak and Red Maple trees with in the Lakeshore Nature Preserve to sustain experimental Leaf-Cutter Ant colonies throughout the winter months. Photos: Caitlin Carlson

The Currie Lab is excited to announce a new partnership with the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. For the last few years the Currie lab has been utilizing the reserve for student projects, and as a fieldwork site for the Wisconsin Antimicrobial Research Project, but this summer we are happy to announce that the Preserve is allowing the lab to cut and collect leaves to maintain our display leaf-cutter ant colony and numerous research colonies.

Maintaining leaf-cutter ant colonies is a breeze in the summer with all the fresh and crisp leaves available, but around August and September we have to start collecting leaves for the winter. Our leaf-cutter ants come from the tropics in in Central and South America where leaves are abundant year round. Transplanting colonies into a northern climate takes strategic planning to make sure the colonies are well fed and healthy during the cold winter months.

The Currie Lab works diligently, just like the ants in Aesop’s fables,* to store enough leaves to sustain the colonies throughout the winter. We don’t want to be left out in the cold like the grasshopper with nothing to eat! Each year it is a challenge for the lab to find enough leaves to store for the winter, so when the Lakeshore Preserve extended our permit to include leaf cutting we were ecstatic.

The Preserve took our partnership one step further in suggesting the ants try and cut an invasive species of plant called Norway Maple. According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Norway Maple is a terrestrial invasive species that is native to Europe and Asia. This species is considered an ecological threat as it will invade native woodland and out compete native plant species. To our delight the ants were happy to incorporate Norway Maple leaves into their fungus garden.

With our freezer stocked we now feel prepared for the cold winter months to come, and we hope to continue our partnership with the Lakeshore Preserve next summer to keep all our ant colonies healthy and strong for the winters to come! 


Make sure to see our Leaf-Cutter ant colony on display during the Wisconsin Science Festival October 22nd from 1-3 on the 1st floor of the Microbial Sciences Building 1550 Linden Dr.


*Aesop’s fables as told by Disney. The story of the Grasshopper and the Ant!


All worker ants are female.

Insects have 6 legs (not four) and are not known to play musical instruments.

Nicotine (found in tobacco) is a natural insecticide, so it is unlikely the grasshopper would be chewing.

Tags: Leaf-cutter ants, Lab news

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Madison, WI 53706
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