Here Be Monsters Podcast

The Podcast About the Unknown

HBM098: Feed the Queen

The Victoria Bug Zoo is home to dozens of species of insects and arachnids, and two leaf cutter ant colonies.

There's the new colony, with a three year old queen whose kingdom grows every day. If all goes well, she is expected to live to the age of fifteen, laying an egg approximately every three seconds. Her colony is teaming with a healthy population of soldiers, gardeners, and foragers with the potential to reach more than a million ants. There is a constant stream of activity; the soldiers patrol the tunnels to keep the queen and colony safe, the foragers trek back and forth retrieving leaves for the gardeners who busily chew the leaves into substrate.

Leaf cutter ants don't actually eat the leaves they cut down. Instead, they use chewed up leaves to build nurseries for the hatchlings, and to grow fungus gardens. The fungus produces a nectar, and that's what everyone eats. These ants have farmed and domesticated this fungus for many millions of years, long before humans discovered agriculture. This special relationship is called “mutualism”.

The second ant colony -- the old colony -- is not a robust as the first. At thirteen, almost fourteen years old, the old queen recently passed away. In fact, Bug Zoo tour guide Ash Bessant discovered ants dragging dismembered parts of her body to the ant graveyard as HBM producer Bethany Denton was interviewing him.

From: Ants! Natures Secret Power A giant ant colony is pumped full of concrete, then excavated to reveal the complexity of its inner structure.

According to Ash, some of the ants continue to try feeding and cleaning the queen even after she’s died. Without a queen to lay eggs, the colony population will eventually dwindle and die out.

Can’t get enough leaf cutter ants? We recommend the 2013 BBC documentary Planet Ant: Life Inside the Colony

Bethany Denton produced this episode, with editing help from Jeff Emtman. Nick White is our editor at KCRW, and Kristen Lepore is our manager at KCRW’s Independent Producer Project.

Music:  The Black Spot   |||    Serocell


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HBM044: Distant Warfare

Bridget Burnquist was backpacking around Southeast Asia. After weeks of drinking cheap liquor on beautiful beaches, she was beginning to feel as though her experiences were merely superficial. She heard rumors that the nearby country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) was home to beautiful mountain villages that have hardly changed for centuries, accessible only by hiking for days in the Burmese jungles. So she headed west into Myanmar, despite (or perhaps, because of) warnings from the U.S. State Department that essentially said, “If you get into trouble, you're on your own. Travel at your own risk.”

It was spring of 2014, just a few short years after Myanmar had emerged from decades of isolation imposed by its shuttered military rulers. Hundreds of unique ethnic groups within the borders of Myanmar have since been fighting for political representation. Unbeknownst to Bridget, a civil war still waged within its borders.

Bridget soon arrived in the Shan State.  This region of Myanmar is home to mountainous terrain and diverse ethnic communities, accessible only by foot. She joined up with a local guide and a fellow Western traveler.  The three decide to backpack through the Palaung tea country and up into the higher, wilder areas of Myanmar.  One night in the mountains, Bridget and her travel companions had an unexpected encounter with Palaung rebel soldiers that left her questioning her perception of violence and proximity.

Valley where William heard RPGs

Valley where William heard RPGs

WARNING: The videos below contain images of warfare that may be disturbing to some viewers.   These videos were uploaded a group claiming to be the TNLA, a Palaung rebel army.  We sampled sounds from these videos for the episode.   Jeff examined the first video, and believes that the sounds of gunshots were added in post-production.

Since Myanmar gained independence in 1948, an estimated 130,000 civilians and soldiers have been killed in civil conflict; over 700 people have been killed this year. Recent peace talks between the Burmese government and rebel groups ended in a stalemate in August 2015. An election is slated for November 2015. 

Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese advocate for democracy, is attempting to run for president against militant incumbent Thein Sein. Her candidacy has recently been disqualified by lawmakers, but Aung San Suu Kyi continues to advocate for constitutional change to allow her presidential campaign.

Bridget Burnquist produced this episode with editing help from Jeff Emtman and Bethany Denton. Our editor at KCRW is Nick White.

Music:  The Black Spot   |||  Serocell   |||   Nym   |||   Lucky Dragons