Durango Public Library welcomed a new photo exhibit this month based on honeypot ant research completed by retired biology professor John Conway.
The Durango resident spent his career teaching human anatomy and physiology at the University of Scranton, but his real passion is studying ants.
In 1975, Conway completed a honeypot ant survey at the Garden of the Gods as part of his doctorate thesis at University of Colorado Boulder. In 2018, the city of Colorado Springs hired Conway to conduct a new survey of the nest population in Garden of the Gods to see whether the population had decreased since his first study.
He found 50 nests during his first survey, but when he returned in 2018, the nest population had decreased to 20.
He speculates the decrease may be a result of increased human interaction, climate change and erosion mats causing habitat disturbance.
Many people hike and ride horses on the trails which could cause disruption to the ants.
“Honey ants can actually tolerate and sometimes build their nests in the middle of human trails,” Conway said. “But I never found them in the middle of a horse trail because horses really tear up the ground wherever they go.”
Conway said warmer temperatures caused by climate change may have been related to the decline in the ant population. The ants tend to nest in dryer climates and will forage in cooler temperatures.
“They tend to nest on the tops of ridges and in the Garden of the Gods,” he said. “The ridge tops go up roughly from 5,000 to 7,000 feet,” he said.
Honeypot ants are a unique species drawing interest from those who visit Colorado Springs. There are two different types of honey pot ant: workers and repletes. The workers will go out and forage for nectar from plants like yucca or scrub oak.
The worker ants forage the nectar and return to their nest where they regurgitate the nectar into a replete’s mandible. The replete’s abdomen will increase in size as it receives more nectar. Their job is to store the nectar for times when nectar becomes scarce and then feed the rest of the colony. They feed the rest of colony by hanging upside down from their dome-shaped nests.
Conway said he hasn’t found honeypot ant species near Durango despite his best efforts. He said people have found honeypot ants near Towaoc, but he doesn’t know why the ants prefer certain parts of Colorado compared to others.
He also said there is an abundance of nests in Portal, Arizona, where he has done research.
The honeypot ants were used as a shrub food source by Indigenous peoples of Australia. They ate the ants as a form of carbohydrates during the 1800s when resources were scarce.
Conway has even eaten some of the ants.
“They don't taste like bee honey. They sort of taste like molasses, but they definitely have a nice sweet flavor to them,” Conway said.
The Indigenous peoples of Australia also ate witchetty grubs which provided a great source of protein. Each grub has 15% protein and 10% fat and Conway estimated that eating 10 grubs would satisfy daily protein needs.
Photos of the Indigenous peoples eating the ants and grubs are on display at the exhibit.
Conway recently served as a consultant for a YouTube video created by PBS about the honeypot ants. He has also given lectures at the Garden of the Gods visitor’s center and at Fort Lewis College about the ants.