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Nonstop weekend: Ceramics, ants

So I managed to get this first bowl finished during the first ceramics session, as you might recall:

Dragonfly bowl

But I have several more bowls to go. Painting the dragonfly with black iron oxide took a while. Here's how that bowl looked before the glazing and firing:

Dragonfly Bowl 1

At the moment I have a bunch of other projects in the works, too, so I didn't want to spend Saturday's studio time entirely on painting. I do, however, want to continue making these kinds of pieces. So I worked on two more bowls at home on Saturday morning. I'm hesitant to show the outcome of the painting effort for the new bowls before things get fired again, because as you can see from the work above, glaze firing is a dynamic process and things almost never turn out exactly as you expect them to. So we shall see. Then I managed to spend the entire afternoon in the studio making headway on the other projects. A full day of ceramics - not bad. I strategically sat at the wheel that was furthest away from the noisiest classmates, and that made things much more tolerable for the afternoon.

When I first arrived at the studio, another new student had appeared. We took one look at each other and went, "I know you." It was J, someone else who was a regular back when I did ceramics during grad school. It was comforting to see him there. He's kind of funny in that his specialty is cylindrical vases with textural decorations - that's basically the only thing he makes, as far as I can tell. He made two of them during Saturday's class. How many vases does a person need? He says he gives away pretty much all of them. His approach reflects the personal tactile comfort/engagement aspect of ceramics. Clay speaks to different people in different ways.


Grad student N and I have been keeping a close eye on the weather over the past week, ever since we'd heard that there would probably be an unusually early monsoon storm coming up. Ant-hunting season has begun. And storm it did, although as with most monsoon rain the amount of rain a given location receives can vary tremendously. We only got a few light sprinkles in Dogtown, but the neighborhoods north of the Phoenix Mountains were more thoroughly drenched. The bulk of the rain fell from Friday night through Saturday morning, which meant that we wouldn't need to go down to Tucson until Sunday morning. This was a small relief, given the ambitious ceramics agenda you can see outlined above.

There was just one slight hitch, in that [personal profile] scrottie and I had made plans to have dinner with friends who live in Paradise Valley on Saturday night. I enjoy bicycling up there because then I get the combination of decent exercise AND quality time with good friends. But all told, it takes about 1.5 hours to ride up there, and another 1.5 hours to ride home. So we didn't get home and into bed until 1:30 am.

I don't think I really slept, because I then had to get up by 3:30 am so N and I could drive down to Tucson in time to catch the leafcutter mating swarms, shortly after sunrise.

We made good time on the drive, arriving by 5:45 am. The total rainfall accumulation in our key collecting area was just borderline for what we think it takes to trigger mating swarms, but if we didn't go down there we would never know whether we'd wind up missing our only opportunity to get queens.

Typically, during a good swarming event, we will drive past multiple mating aggregations on our way out to our main collecting area. Yesterday morning, we saw next to no signs of activity as we drove along. It occurred to me that we could roll down the car windows, and when we did so we discovered that it was unusually cool out (almost chilly!), so I figured the cooler temperatures could be postponing any ant activity.

In all, as morning temperatures started to rise we wound up getting to watch a small swarm form at one of the better collecting spots, and managed to collect 59 queens in the end. We didn't see signs of any other swarming activity elsewhere, so I think this rain wasn't quite sufficient to really get things going. This past winter was extremely dry, so I'm hoping that overall this rainfall event will encourage plant growth and facilitate future flights, so long as future storms roll through. Monsoon rains are always a gamble.

Two photos:

The dark spots on the upper left are the leafcutter ant queens and males in midair. The ants fly towards an aggregation, where the males grab onto the queens while in flight, and then they fall to the ground and mate.
Swarn in the sky

Ants mating beneath the swarm:
Mating beneath the swarm

In this species, the queens mate multiple times, so after they've finished with one male, they pause for a millisecond and then take off again, back into the swarm. Quite a frenzy. We wanted to wait until we were sure the queens had mated as many times as they desire, so that meant waiting until it looked like the queens could no longer fly and were starting to shed/tear off their wings. Altogether we used those 59 queens to set up 20 nests of 3 queens per nest:


That isn't enough nests for everything we'd like to get done this year, so we'll continue to keep an eye on the weather. Ideally we'll manage to start up around 85 nests total, so that's 255 queens, at least. A fraction of the nests will inevitably die; over 95% of the queens in the wild die during the colony initiation phase. We tend to have better success in the lab, but some extra collecting never hurts. We shall see.

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