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The Queen is Dead, Long Live the Queen

Queen Victoria of England ruled for sixty-three years, seven months and two days before her death in 1901.  In accordance with her meticulous instructions, the queen’s body was dressed in a white gown and her wedding veil, and beside her were placed the stipulated photographs, locks of hair, and a plaster cast of the hand of Prince Albert. On February 2, her coffin was borne through the streets of London on a gun carriage. With perhaps less fanfare, after a reign of four years, another queen, in a kingdom on Whitney Avenue, was recently borne from her deathbed by a pair of forceps.

The queen of the Yale Peabody Museum’s leaf-cutter ant colony is no more. Her death in late October would have gone unnoticed, says the discoverer of the body and the Peabody’s education coordinator, Jim Sirch, but for the gradual decline of the colony’s population. He noticed the size of the population stagnate and then fall about a month before her death was confirmed in the fall. It is hard, he explained, to quantify ants in the intricate, secretive, and microcosmic fungal garden they inhabit and cultivate. Staff, students, and visitors to the Discovery Room, where the ant colony is situated, noticed the fungus diminishing in size and expressed concern for the queen’s health.

Leaf-cutter ants form the largest, most complex societies on earth, next to our own. Rival kingdoms in the Peabody’s Discovery Room—which include poison dart frogs from South America and thumb-sized hissing cockroaches from Madagascar—do not compare. Leaf-cutters belong to some of the oldest agricultural societies on earth, cultivating fungal gardens in finely tuned reciprocity. Fungal complexes have been discovered in the ants’ native tropics that are five hundred square feet in area and reach twenty-six feet below the ground, dimensions that, taking into account our much larger size, make the Great Wall of China look like a garden fence.

Leaf-cutters appear to have unanimously adopted monarchism as their preferred form of government. Their entire social hierarchy is organized according to a simple principle. Size determines occupation, lifestyle, and every other quality an ant might wish to claim. The largest ants protect the nest from invaders. Middling castes include the foragers and the soldiers who protect them as they cut scraps of leaves and haul them back to the garden in orderly columns. The smallest care for the brood of larvae or attend, like ladies-in-waiting, upon the queen, who continually produces eggs throughout her life.  The members of all of these castes are female, infertile, and dwarfed in size by the queen.  As with Abraham Lincoln or Lyndon Johnson, both six-foot-four, physical stature correlates with political power, and—for ant queens—size is something one is born into.

The old fungal garden in the Peabody, presided over by the now deceased and ever-unnamed queen, was, at its largest, about the size of a basketball. Built on top of hydrostone, a porous sculpting cement, the grayish-green fungal garden—suggestive of moldy Swiss cheese—grew and shrank with the population of the ants and its own life cycle.  The ants are always carrying away dying fungus and bringing new leaf material to fertilize the garden. It is hard to see what the ants are doing inside the garden, but a long tube runs across the room to the leaf pile, supplied by New Haven trees, rosebushes, and other foliage. Visitors, especially children, enjoy watching the ants trundle back and forth with their jagged loads.

Without the queen, the whole colony must die. In captivity, a queen cannot lay reproductive eggs and ensure her succession. In the tropics, a queen begins her adult life with wings, flies up once, and mates in the air. During the nuptial flight, fertile males from many colonies rise to meet her in an aerial orgy.

Once the queen is fertilized—with up to 300 million sperm—she leaves her lovers, who promptly die, and returns to the ground. There, she loses her wings and burrows deep beneath the rainforest soil. First though, she stores a bit of fungus in her mouth to provide the first few spores for her colony.

Though queens in the wild can live up to twenty years, conditions in captivity vary greatly, affecting the queens’ reproductive ability and life cycles. The life and death of this queen was, to some degree, shrouded in mystery. The museum staff does not know whether she took ill or whether she was poisoned but they are not extremely perturbed, despite the effort it takes to get a new queen and painstakingly coax forth a vibrant new colony. Sirch has obtained a young queen and her foundling colony from the Boston Museum of Science, which, in turn, acquired them from the rainforest of Costa Rica.

The new queen will rule over a growing population of ants and the burgeoning fungal garden in which her subjects harmoniously reside—now the size of several stacked kitchen sponges. This new kingdom has been placed in a plastic container near the dying one on display in the Discovery Room. The old queen will likely be forgotten by all but the entomology department, which houses her remains.

Sirch had watched the queen’s slowing activity for several weeks as he stole glimpses of her through an opening in the garden. Movement that for some time he took for the queen’s was in fact only the stirrings of her ladies-in-waiting. Eventually, Sirch used forceps to pull out the queen, the size of a small mouse. She was dead.

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