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Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants

Biologist and nature photographer Mark Moffett uses his camera like a microscope. For 30 years, he's focused his lens on the tiny, complex world of ants.

He compares himself to a wildlife photographer; however, instead of hiding behind a tree to capture a shot, he says he's normally shielded by a blade of grass.

"You look out on the other side of the grass blade and see that the ant is responding to you and will go into attack in a second. So you have to back off and hide again and sneak around to another viewpoint. It's exactly like going after a larger animal."

Photographs document ants' sometimes surprising daily lives

Moffett is a storyteller, and to get his ant tales, he spends a lot of time on the ground or in the canopy of trees waiting and watching. The close-up photographs in "Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants" at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. capture both the mundane and the dramatic aspects their daily lives - including, Moffett says, "the development of highways and the building of their cities, the communications systems, the detail in which they organize together, whether they form teams or assembly lines as people do in factories."

Much like humans, ants are social creatures. They build homes, produce crops, nurture their young and bury their dead. Moffett's close-up photos in the Smithsonian exhibit follow army ants making roads, Australian bulldog ants tending their young, and honey pot ants engaged in a fighting ritual where they circle around each other. Moffett says the losing colony is the one with the shorter workers, which get frightened and run away.

"One day I am out there watching these ants, and I see that one short ant climbs up on a pebble in this picture and freaks out the taller ant." Humans, Moffett says, "would call that cheating."

Strange, rare species of ants still await discovery

Ants were around when dinosaurs roamed the earth. There are 12,000 ant species today, but probably another 12,000 which have never been identified, according to researchers at the National Collection of Ants, housed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Moffett enjoys the pursuit of those strange and rare species and documenting their lives. He was the first to show that a species of mud ant in Ecuador eats snails.

"These are perhaps the slowest of ants," he says. "They barely move all day," so a diet of snails makes sense, he adds. "And the fun was that here [I photographed] a snail being 'chased' by a mud ant, and you see that [the snail] is making a dramatic left-hand turn to make its escape in super slow-mo[tion]."

Teaching people the value of ants

The Smithsonian exhibit includes an aluminum cast of an underground ant city and a living colony where visitors can watch a parade of harvester ants carry cut up leaves through a network of plastic tubes.

But it's the photographs that captivate 11-year-old Cashmere Johnson from Boulder, Colorado, who sees the ants' eyes close-up as "really freaky." Her mother, Marjorie, describes those eyes with a mellow meditative expression, but is also impressed with other details of ant anatomy.

"Their legs seem a lot longer than I thought, because when you normally see an ant, they are so tiny, you just don't see these delicate intricacies"

Mark Moffett hopes museum-goers like the Johnson family will gain a new understanding of the importance of ants to the ecology of the planet.

"We don't actually see their lives and getting those private lives up here at the Smithsonian where everyone can see them and forget that they are small, but understand that they have their own, in a sense, their own passions and dynamics that lead to all kinds of things that people would recognize in their own lives."

And perhaps, Moffett adds, think twice before stepping on an ant, even if it's at a picnic.

First video: Skirble's report

Second video: Entomologist Ted Schultz is the curator of the U.S. National Collection of Ants housed in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Here Schultz describes why we should care about ants.

Third video: Ted Schultz describes the leaf cutter ant colony featured in the Smithsonian "Hidden Lives of Ants" exhibit.