Commercial Myrmecology and Anthill Art

Several of you have contacted me about the guy selling fire ant aluminum nest casts:






What do I think?

Well, I’m not that fussed. At least, not about the ants. I just don’t see the harm in a private citizen capitalizing on a pest insect in a way that promotes awareness of the insects. I also have a hard time getting worked up over the mass death of fire ants. They are imported fire ants. These are billion-dollar pests, and they are not nice players in our North American ecosystems.

If there’s a danger here, it’s a slippery slope for conservation rather than an immediate problem. If a market develops for these sorts of pieces that involves increasing numbers of entrepreneurs trampling public lands to cast native ants, killing large numbers of colonies,  starting fires, and leaving big pits, then we’ll have legitimate conservation concerns. But this activity by itself, the frying of suburban colonies that would likely be sprayed to death by homeowners anyway, doesn’t really bother me. Plus, broader dissemination of the ant casts may help people come to appreciate the little insects, and that helps all of us.

I can’t support Anthill Art itself, though. The scholar in me just can’t do it. The nest-casting techniques were painstakingly developed over many years not by this new guy, but by myrmecologist Walter Tschinkel (see pdf). Neither the artist’s website nor the media coverage mention Tschinkel’s work, so the whole endeavor comes across as derivative and more than a bit plagiarized.

Also, someone please shoot me. I just posted one of those animated GIFs that I hate.

**Update: Adrian Smith is leading a great discussion over on facebook

34 thoughts on “Commercial Myrmecology and Anthill Art”

  1. I used to pour boiling water down the nests of fire ants outside my apartment…If I had poured molten aluminum instead, I would be much richer today!
    Casting ant nests dates back before Walter Tschinkel, but he is definitely the guy to thank for refining the technique, so I am not sure that this derivative art is problematic. In addition, re-branding commercial products and calling them art is considered transformative. In essence, this becomes art because this guy says it is.There is no reason why scientific products would be any different, unless Walter Tschinkel patented the technique for producing decorative consumer products or something.

  2. Had no idea that you were supposed to credit people that pioneered an art in your own art. Is that common knowledge? Do you do it in pottery, print making or anything else? This is somewhat unique (ant-nest casts), but cast-making isn’t rocket science either. I’ve made a few casts myself. Never looked at Walter Tschinkel’s work though. I guess he did some good casts.

    1. Artist speaking here. Yes, artists should also cite their influences, if inspired by another’s work. Not if it’s a general idea, like wheel thrown vessels, but if there is something that will evoke another’s work, then ethically an artist must give credit.

        1. Ethical and must aren’t necessarily at odds. But if it will make feel better: “…an artist should be diligent in attributing source material, and never claim originality when inspired by another’s work.”


  3. Obviously there is nothing illegal here. This isn’t a copyright or a patent issue, and I don’t think Walter would or should have legal grounds for going after Anthill Art. Rather, this is more an issue of ethics, and those of us with science training find such blatant copying a bit jarring. We’re used to meticulously documenting sources for various ideas & methods- just look at the pages of citations in any paper.

    Why this bothers me, I think, is because the pieces are being marketed as educational, and as museum display pieces, and as such that puts them at least partly in the culture of academics rather than artists.

    1. Hey guys. Clearly I come from an outside perspective here. I’m not an ant guy or else I might know who this famous ant nest biologist was. Clearly he’s famous. I’ve done casts of other critters before and have no idea who this Walter guy is (nor any of the other ones mentioned). I don’t think we should be so quick to judge the guy.

      I can totally see the artist’s perspective. If I didn’t know how famous Walter was I may not have ever remembered where the inspiration came from. For me, I just got inspired by an animated GIF of it in my FB feed.

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  5. Don’t know how reputable it is, but this story describes the man behind the sculptures, Wally Peart, who does in fact seem to omit any mention of Tschinkel. Worse, he explicitly states: “I don’t know anyone else who uses anthills in an artistic process. It was just an idea that came to me as I was moving over the land.” So, looks like it’s not just an error of omission, but explicitly taking credit for a technique he didn’t develop. Unless he could have come upon the technique independently?

    1. Yep, he could Benjamin. What Walter Tschinkel applied to ant nests is basically the ancient (>2500 years) technique of sand-casting metals. This technique is known by engineers, mechanics, sculptors and practical folk like farmers turned sculptors the world around. Brilliant to have applied the technique to natural history and Walter should be acknowledged in science and direct copying of his application of the method.
      However, there is another problem with your outrage, which is more ‘taxonomic’. Wally Peart is almost certainly not the subject of this post. Distribution – wrong continent. Nest casts – wrong species. Wally appears to be collecting termite mounds (anthills in Australia) and very deliberately choosing and casting sections for his art.
      Furthermore, what appears in a short newspaper article often doesn’t record everything the subject actually said to the journalist. And you’re lucky if they don’t get it all upside-down – just imagine explaining to the arts editor: 1 Walter’s work; and 2 the difference between ants and white ants.

      1. I wouldn’t refer to my feeling as “outrage”! 😀 And yes, this is why I started with “Don’t know how reputable it is…”. So it seems I was wrong here about the article. And in this case, we actually now know of three people who have used this technique on nests!

  6. I don’t see anything very nefarious about this either. I’m most troubled by the fact that he isn’t giving any credit to Tschinkel, when it’s plainly obvious that it’s ripping off his technique. The video of him making the mold of the harvester ant nest has gone viral at least once, so it’s extremely unlikely he came up with the technique himself. It’s not a patented technique, so it’s legal, but ethically it’s very obviously wrong. I also have a slight issue over calling things like this made without any skill and without any significance or meaning “art”, but that’s more esoteric.

    More importantly, Alex, how can you not like gifs? Millennials like me communicate solely through gifs these days!

  7. Walter started casting a long time ago, so it is not likely that the majority of folks “just dreamed up the idea.” True credit for the idea of nest casting needs to back to Kondoh in the late 1960’s in Japan and then Dave Williams at the USDA (using plaster) in Florida. Walter adapted those techniques and introduced the metal casting (aluminum and zinc) and more recently, wax as research methods and as artistic pieces. Walter’s contributions are unique, and thus should be credited by artists that use them, just as scientists must cite his work when they use the publications.

  8. I just don’t get why people get so stingy about attribution… it hurts no one to cite your sources and inspirations — everyone benefits, yourself included! Not even a zero-sum situation here. Furthermore, it allows for tracing the evolution of ideas, styles, techniques, etc, which is fascinating in and of itself.

  9. Do you know how many times I’ve come up with a great idea and it turns out it already exists Perhaps some little “life hack” that I’ve used for years….. Then someone points out that there is an item out there that does the exact same thing. It’s not like I research every idea to see if it exists already. Maybe, just maybe he thought he did come up with the idea.

  10. This artist has a facebook page, a website, a Youtube channel, and an eBay seller’s account. Given that Walter’s work is all over the internet on any search for ant nest casts and related terms, I find it extremely unlikely that anyone with the web savvy of Anthill Art would have been unaware of Walter’s research.

  11. People pioneer art. I could go right now and do exactly what this man has done EXCEPT it would be MY art; in the same way that this is HIS personal artistry. Nobody cares about pioneering an idea because we know that many people have the same ideas at the same time and ideas exist centuries prior to actually manifesting. It’s about whoever capitalizes on the idea. If an individual sits on an inventive creation idea, and never does anything about it, he may as well not even have the idea in the first place. I’ve never seen this done before. I like it. And I support the killing AND torture of ants.

    1. Walter did not sit on his idea. Videos of Walter making nest casts were viral on the internet several years ago. Major magazines have carried stories about his work. His pieces are on display at numerous museums. He has written several papers about the technique. Your argument speaks to your own laziness rather than anything Walter may or may not have done.

  12. Alfred Buschinger

    The auction has been finished. The last bid I witnessed yesterday was US $ 4.550,- a couple of hours before the end.

    If you now click at the respective ebay-URL, , a high number of ads appear that offer various kinds of ant gel-farms, antquariums etc., but also a ,
    and “a COFFEE TABLE designed by ants”:

    Apparently there are more people capitalizing on the idea of Walter Tschinkel. Though, “ANtistic design” explicitely mentiones:
    “As much as I’d like to take full credit for this idea I can not (though i can claim most of it). and being a person of ethics .I must give credit where credit is do .I was watching discovery channel one day and saw this professor (Walter R. Tschinkel if you’d like to google him) down in flordia” (sic!).

  13. Here is what the actual “artist” has to say about it (from the facebook page here:

    “I’m not really a fan of art and would never refer to myself as an artist, I guess I considered the ants to be the artists (and architects). If someone created these themselves and called it art I would call it modern art crap.”

    So, I think it’s clear that making art is not what is happening here. Available evidence points to a desire to make money rather than to educate or make an artistic statement.

      1. Well, technically it’s still consistent. He apparently thinks that the ants make the art, so he’s still selling “anthill art”, just not anthill art he created (in his view, ostensibly).

  14. I’m going to weigh in as a complete outsider. I came to this page from the anthill art Facebook page. How I got there was from a Buzzfeed video. Whereas after reading your information, I was able to find some amazing casts by Walter, had I never come here, his name, and the science of myrmecology‎, would be completely unknown to me. Please remember, to the everyday folks, we rarely think about the fact that there are people who scientifically study literally everything. Honestly, the everyday person takes so many fields of science and scientists for granted, it’s truly sad.

    A subset of entomology dealing with ants? It makes perfect sense. Before today, though, it never occurred to me. While I’m certainly not a newcomer to Youtube or any other facet of the internet, and though Walter’s work may have gone viral several years ago, I have never seen it or even knew to look for it. (now I wish I had)

    As was mentioned earlier by another post, I’ve also had many ideas that have been previously thought of before. In this case though, had I been out dealing fire ants, pouring liquids down into them to dispose of them. I might have thought about what would happen if I poured liquid metal instead. Looking into it? My first search wouldn’t have been for “nest casting.” It would simply have been for metal casting, or more probably “pouring metal into the ground.” This may have eventually led me to a link about nest casting.

    As educated individuals, aware of the science and of what Walter has done, the obvious search would be to look for info about casting an ant nest. Myself, until today, wouldn’t have thought to search for it in a million years. My gut reaction is that the molten metal would destroy the tunnels, the idea that it works is amazing to me. My point being, that what might be an obvious internet search to you, might not occur to someone else. Our individual knowledge and experience shapes what we consider possible.

    Maybe he was fully aware, and willfully chose to omit the name of someone who popularized the same thing. Then again, maybe he’s just some guy that came up with something that someone else has already done.

    Thank you for considering my $0.02

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  16. So: People are going to kill suburban fire ant colonies anyway so this is probably OK but there are some concerns (future impacts, not citing a scientist who did this first, etc.)? That’s what we’re going with here? You gotta choose your battles, but come on. I find it hard to believe that pouring liquid metal into soil is a good idea. Where does he get the aluminum? Last I checked, bauxite mines weren’t exactly super-great either. And that’s not even touching the whole “we get to do what we want with animals notions implicit in all this”. Next time I see a kid using a magnifying glass to burn bugs, I guess I’ll just say, “Good on ya! There’s a future in it!”

  17. Well, any extra incentive that people get for destroying more fire ant colonies is a good thing. I strongly suspect that fire ants (rather than Burmese pythons) are responsible for catastrophic declines of small mammals in the Everglades and elsewhere in the Deep South. Don’t have this theory anywhere near ready for publishing in any form, but will try to do some research given a chance.

  18. Fire ants, if I’m not mistaken, were brought to the US from South America through shipments of our lumber. So again, our own tampering has brought about an ecology we don’t like. What do we do to solve it? Tamper more aggressively. What is that definition of insanity again?

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