Ant expert Adrian Smith, of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, says up front that he doesn't “expect movies to be scientifically accurate.”
But Smith agreed to fact-check the Ant-Man movies in preparation for "Ant-Man and the Wasp," which opens Thursday night. Smith also offered suggestions for claims that didn’t work out. Here's our interview:
Q: Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) instructs Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to ride his winged ant by climbing onto its thorax. Is this the best place to ride an ant?
A: The thorax would move a lot. It’s a pretty bouncy place, and you’d be constantly slapped by wings. I would sit on the neck or let the ant carry me in its mouth. That would be the best strategy for the ant, but maybe not for me.
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Q: Hank tells Scott that tropical bullet ants are the highest on the “Schmidt pain scale.” That’s true, but how much does it hurt to get bitten by one?
A: The bullet ant has one of the most potent venoms. But it can only kill you if you’re allergic to it, or maybe if you’re stung hundreds of times. It doesn’t debilitate you.
I got stung in the tip of my finger, and it felt like someone was cranking a tourniquet around my armpit, right where the lymph node is. It throbbed like someone was cranking away for a couple hours.
Q: The team use bullet ants as attackers. How do you feel about this?
A: It’s a rookie choice. It’s the obvious choice, but maybe not the best choice.
Bullet ants have a good individual attack. But bullet ants live in small colonies of 300 to 1000 workers, so they’re individually costly units.
The major ability of ants is numbers. I would pick a fire ant colony, because they live in colonies of hundreds of thousands of workers. It hurts, and it’s a heck of a lot smaller than bullet ant, but there’s a lot more ants coming behind it.
Q: They deploy crazy ants to blow up a building. How would you close a building using ants?
A: You could easily shut down buildings with an infestation. Pharaoh ants are a common wall pest that live inside the walls of buildings. They pick up environmental toxins and spread those around.
You wouldn’t blow it up, but you would make people not want to be in there.
Q: Hank claims carpenter ants are “ideal for ground and air transport.” Is this true?
A: Carpenter ant is a good choice because they’re everywhere, and they’re big. But carpenter ants don’t have any special ant skills for transport.
Leaf-cutter ants are famous for how a big one will cut a section of a leaf and carry it, and smaller workers will ride it around.
You also have several ant species that do tandem running. They’ll recruit a nest mate, tap it on its abdomen and basically hold hands with it all the way to the new nest site.
Q: Pym tell us that “fire ants have evolved to be remarkable architects.” Scott rides a raft of fire ants down a water main, then climbs up a rope made of fire ants. Is this ridiculous?
A: Not ridiculous. Fire ants are famous for rafting. They evolved in a flood plain in South America and have a behavioral adaptation for escaping that, which is forming a living raft.
Ant chains are also pretty common. Weaver ants pick up their larvae and use the larval silk to weave together a whole structure of leaves. They’ll make a huge chain until they span a gap between trees.
Q: In "Ant-Man and the Wasp," ants stand guard and herd someone to another location. Do ants herd?
A: There are ants that use plant-feeding insects as livestock. They’ll pick up the insects, put them on plants, let them feed, stand guard and then eat their poop.
Q: The herding ants clack their mandibles together threateningly. How do ants threaten others?
A: There are ants that wave their heads around with their mandibles open, and some species wave their abdomen in the air to extrude their venom. A mandible opening up is more common than clacking.
Q: If you could make a bad B movie focusing on ants, what would happen?
A: Integrated pest management thinks about the organism’s habits and ecosystems to control pests. For example, you might introduce native parasites of a species.
What if it was a character who was really into ants, and his strategy was to make villains small and put them in front of these ants? It could be integrated villain management.
Like if you had known something about fire ants, you could’ve jumped on the raft and you wouldn’t have drowned. That would be a horrible movie.