Michael Bustos has collected and sold ant farms for years. But this week, he saw a behavior he'd never dreamed of. And he caught the whole thing on video.
Bustos, who founded the ant-selling company AntsCanada in 2009 in Toronto, posted video Saturday of the moment a mother cockroach is overpowered by hungry fire ants—causing her to spontaneously give birth.
In the video, Bustos says he normally kills all prey before he feeds it to his ants. But in response to overwhelming interest from the public, he decided to give his pets live prey.
At about the 10:30 mark, he drops in an adult female cockroach into the fire ants’ tank. What could go wrong? After all, “the roach is many times larger than the ants,” Bustos notes.
Immediately sensing danger, the roach bolts. “But sadly, in a lethal direction,” says Bustos.
The roach falls even deeper into the nest.
“It’s one thing to be on top of a fire ant nest, but it’s another thing to be inside a fire ant nest,” says Bustos.
The ants swarm the roach, “and she stands no chance of survival,” he says. She is quickly paralyzed by all the stinging ants.
But what happens next Bustos found particularly shocking: the female cockroach began to give birth … by pushing out a giant egg sac.
It’s an adaptation that has helped make the insects so ubiquitous: when threatened or dying, a mother roach can quickly expel her young, giving them a chance to carry on the family genes.
“The ants seemed like they didn’t know what to do with this egg sac,” says Bustos. “And what happened next shocked me even more.”
Baby cockroaches begin to emerge from the sac … only to be met by stinging fire ants. The young are bright white, with exoskeletons that are still soft. Being so vulnerable, the young roaches are quickly immobilized and carried off deeper into the nest for future consumption.
“I was in complete awe of the drama that was happening within this ant nest,” says Bustos, noting that he “couldn’t help but feel an enormous amount of guilt” after having set up the deadly encounter.
Fire ants are voracious social insects that are best known as invasive species in the U.S., where they have been in southern states since at least the 1930s (watch more about them).
Fire ants are also known for their ability to join their bodies together, making rafts that can float, even on churning floodwaters. They can survive together in a raft for several weeks. A single fire ant queen can lay three million eggs in her lifetime, so individual worker ants are often considered expendable by the colony and may be sacrificed in daily activities, such as fighting enemies defending the nest or drowning at the bottom of a raft.