Butterfly World ups the ante in hunt for new leafcutter Queen with Trinidad mission

St Albans & Harpenden Review: Butterfly World ups the ante in hunt for new leafcutter Queen with Trinidad mission Butterfly World ups the ante in hunt for new leafcutter Queen with Trinidad mission

A freak electrocution which wiped out a million leafcutter ants in St Albans’ Butterfly World has prompted an international hunt for a new Queen - all the way in Trinidad.

Britain’s biggest colony of tropical ants, who can carry 20 times their weight in their jaws, managed to chew their way through a power cable in their tank- causing the Miriam Lane centre to plunge in to complete darkness.

Most of the ants escaped the electrocution as they were in a separate part of the tank cutting leaves.

The colony's population started dropping and the ants became less active, losing the drive to carry on cutting leaves.

In a bid to bring back a new queen leafcutter ant, Butterfly World has now hired ant specialist Andrew Stephenson from Zoologica Exhibito to search the rainforests of Trinidad.

Louise Hawkins, Butterfly World lepidopterist and ecologist, said: "In March the queen died and once that had happened - everything changed.

"Second to our butterflies, I couldn’t imagine Butterfly World without our leafcutter ants. They are quite a talking point.

"They arrived here four years ago, which was the same sort of time I started working here. To see the empty tanks was quite sad.

"We had set up new rope systems for them over the winter and to not see them there is sad.

"All the staff have been left disappointed because everyone got involved with the ants - they had characters of their own. They were always trying to escape and everyone would get involved to help."

Mr Stephenson is now on a fascinating endeavour involving local farming communities, where he will hunt for the queen through huge chambers, extracting fungus gardens, getting severely bitten and transporting around 10,000 ants back on a plane.

He will pay the farmers not to kill the ant colonies so he can collect them before planting season, when they otherwise would have been exterminated by the farmers to make way for crops.

Ms Hawkins said: "Everyone is really excited to have the colony back.

"They make an excellent exhibit because people of all ages are absolutely fascinated by them. Some people come in and spend hours in there analysing the same ant to watch its journey.
"Old and young come in to learn about the ant society."

It is predicted Mr Stephenson will install the ant colony in the upcoming weeks.

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