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More than a mere interest in insects

By Wang Ru | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-19

3.jpegLeaf-cutter ants that impressed Chen when he visited the Amazon rainforest. CHINA DAILY

Amazon ants

One impressive insect variety he observed in the tropical, biodiverse area were leaf-cutter ants, a species that shows impressive cooperation and farming abilities.

He explains that the ants tear leaves into small, easily movable pieces and carry them back to their colonies to fertilize mushrooms that they, in turn, eat.

Chen spent three days observing one nest in the Amazon several years ago and was amazed by their close coordination.

He observed that the ants are divided into different groups that are respectively responsible for cutting leaves, transporting harvested pieces, clearing obstacles out of the way, guarding the colony, taking care of the young and planting mushrooms.

"Several million ants can live in one nest, but their activities are very orderly," says Chen.

To ensure the freshness of the harvested foliage, leaf-cutter ants often find the shortest routes from the source to their nests. When they move leaves from different places to their nests, it seems in some ways similar to human logistical systems, Chen says.

He points out that ants planted mushrooms tens of millions of years before humans did, creating one of the oldest agricultural systems on the planet.

And Chen also points out that leaf-cutter ants are not the only species to possess "magical" abilities. All insects have such "superpowers", he says.

"Half of the world's living beings are insects," says Chen.

"Humans only have an evolutionary history of 6 million years, but insects have been around several hundred million years, which means they experienced competition for incredibly long periods but haven't been eliminated.

"Insects were the earliest creatures that could fly and feed themselves by farming. They have survived three mass extinctions. No other living things can claim such great achievements."

He hopes that people will learn and take inspiration from insect "superpowers" and apply it to their own lives.

"If we humans believe we are the smartest beings in the world, we may be constrained by this preconception. If we are instead humble and regard all other beings as our teachers, we can gain boundless wisdom," Chen says.

"We should actually see ourselves as equals with other species and believe this is a great world."

This belief has also led Chen to upload over 350 videos about animals, which have gained over 350,000 followers on the short-video platform, Douyin.

He has also taken youngsters to observe insects in the wild.

"Actually, insects are the best playmates for young people. For example, we get them to think about how mosquitoes can stand upside down on the ceiling and why humans can't," Chen says.

"They discover the charm of nature and scientific knowledge from such observations, and find new curiosity about this world."

Beijing primary school student Wang Ruocan participated in a camp Chen organized in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in 2021.

"It was a marvelous journey during which I learned a lot of new things about insects," she says.

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