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Litter is Not a Suitable Home for Ants, Study Says

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By: burgundy bug

An inchman ant (Myrmecia forficata), a species of bull ant, standing guard near its colony on Bruny Island, Tasmania.

Source: Envato Elements

The world is your oyster, not your dumpster – although it’s often mistreated as such.

The non-profit organization Keep America Beautiful reports the United States spends approximately $11.5 billion to clean up litter annually. However, crumbled up plastics and abandoned glass bottles still find their way into the natural world, invading forests, lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Recently, researchers investigated the impact of discarded bottles and containers on ants, questioning whether these discarded byproducts of human activity are a “deadly trap or sweet home.”

“The presence of anthropogenic waste in the environment is one of the most pervasive pollution problems affecting wildlife around the world.”

Deadly trap or sweet home? The case of discarded containers as novelty microhabitats for ants | Global Ecology and Conservation

After collecting 939 containers from woodland areas in Wroclaw, Poland, researchers found 698 dead ants across 97 containers (10.3 percent of containers).

“Interestingly, the containers with dead ant bodies usually had damp walls, which could hinder escape,” the 2020 Global Ecology and Conservation study explains.

On the other hand, forty-one containers (4.4 percent) were being used as a nesting site for ants, which the researchers left in their place and only collected a few worker ants from those colonies to determine their species.

To assess the factors enticing ants to establish their humble abodes within these containers, researchers accounted for the capacity, opening diameter, material, presence of neck, color, and original content of each container.

“Dead ants were found two-fold more frequently in sweet drink bottles and vodka bottles than in beer bottles,” the study adds. “… We hypothesize the main attractant luring foragers to enter the containers is the smell of decomposing animal carcasses and/or fermenting beverages. It could explain the prevalence of predatory and omnivorous ant species among trapped species.”

Brown plastic and glass bottles were inhabited most frequently among the containers, and dead ants appeared more frequently in colorless bottles than in brown ones.

“It is worth mentioning that in examined samples of ants, the internal walls of bottles and cans were usually covered with soil, and the entrance was partially blocked up with only a small hole remaining,” the study adds. “It is unclear whether the presence of soil inside those containers was a factor stimulating ants to establish nests inside them, or if soil accumulation was an effort of worker activity. We assume the soil can provide more stable microclimatic conditions inside containers.”

Furthermore, the researchers acknowledge soil or brown colored containers are examples of the ants’ preference towards nests that provide UV protection. After all, “brown is one of the best colors for blocking light,” the study says.

Additionally, ants were less likely to appear in containers with larger opening diameters and were more likely to appear in plastic or glass containers than aluminum.

The researchers were unable to determine whether these containers serve as seasonal habitats for ants, if they return to the same containers after winter, or if the colonies stay there throughout the winter. All of which warrants further investigation.

Although the study demonstrates ants’ ability to adapt and nest within discarded containers, it sheds light on a dark side of litter that ecologists and environmentalists are faced with on a daily basis: how other species are affected by human activity.

Read: Top Environmental Concerns: Climate Change by Erizon

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Let’s Trash Talk

Plastics and other forms of waste form a wide “river” between trees

Source: Pexels

The United States Environmental Protection Agency says trash generation has increased from 88.2 tons in 1960 to 267.8 million tons in 2017 – an increase of 179.6 million tons annually in just 57 years. That averages out to roughly 3.2 million tons of additional trash generated per year.

Together, glass and plastics constituted 5.7 percent of the municipal solid waste in 2017, weighing in at 11.4 million 35.4 million tons, respectively.

For additional information on plastic pollution and how it affects the environment as well as wildlife, please refer to our article: BYOBottle: The Future of Sustainable Concerts and Festivals.

In Conclusion

Litter is a costly eye-sore, pollutant, and threat to the environment in many ways beyond what’s detectable to the public eye.

As American explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle had put it while testifying in Congress after the Gulf of Mexico Oil spill in 2010, “We put billions into what takes us into the skies above and it’s paying off handsomely. We’ve neglected the ocean and it’s costing us dearly.”

American explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle testifies in Congress after the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill in 2010

Source: Deepwater Horizon – May 19, 2010 – CSPAN-Sylvia Earle on Gulf disaster impact pt 2 |

The same mentality applies here; we pour billions into the production, shipping, and marketing of single-use containers. Despite another $11.5 billion being spent in the United States to pick up after the garbage, its traces still linger in forests and oceans.

The Global Ecology and Conservation study shows that in some cases, species like ants, can adapt to living with human waste, but more often than not our waste has a fatal impact on other living things.

In the discussion portion of the paper, the researchers cite similar previous studies demonstrating the impact of human waste on bees.

“Sandilyan (2014), during an eight-hour-long observation, found more than 800 dead bees in a single dustbin filled with disposable paper cups containing leftovers of sweet drinks,” the study says. “While Chandrasekaran et al. (2011), during a 30-day long study, recorded a mass death of 25,000 honey bees lured by sugar filling disposable cups thrown into bins near five coffee bars in India.”

Implementing sustainable alternatives and a more effective approach to waste management is imperative to protecting all life on Earth.

“We suppose the deadly effects of this ecological trap overweight the positive effects of a new niche for nesting sites,” the study concludes. “… We suggest developing tools helping to prevent the accumulation of waste in urban woodlands (such as raising of public awareness, recycling programs, cleaning activities involving citizens, placing more bins in the entrance to woodlands, etc…) could contribute ant and terrestrial invertebrates conservation in human-disturbed habitats.”

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burgundy bug


A cynical optimist and mad scientist undercover, burgundy bug is the editor, graphic designer, webmaster, social media manager, and primary photographer for The Burgundy Zine. Entangled in a web of curiosity, burgundy bug’s work embodies a wide variety of topics including: neuroscience, psychology, ecology, biology, cannabis, reviews, fashion, entertainment, and politics. You can learn more about working with burgundy bug by visiting her portfolio website: burgundybug.com

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