A bug's-eye view of a Hollywood storyline

Insect Fear Film Festival delves into movies featuring ant-sized humans
Graphic for Insect Fear Film Festival
The 2024 Insect Fear Film Festival will feature films in which humans are shrunk to the size of ants and participate in ant societies. This is the 41st annual festival, which was founded by May Berenbaum, head of the Department of Entomology, and is hosted by the Entomology Graduate Student Association. (Image by Grace O'Brien.)

The 2024 Insect Fear Film Festival will bring its audience a bug’s-eye view of the world. The festival’s theme is “Ant-Men,” and it will feature films in which humans are shrunk to the size of ants and participate in ant societies.

The 41st annual festival is Feb. 24 at Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“One of the few sources of comfort for us when we’re faced with insect enemies is that at least we’re bigger than they are,” said May Berenbaum, head of the Department of Entomology and the founder of the festival. “For many festivals, we’ve focused on why insects can’t be the size of Greyhound buses and what physiological constraints keep them small.”

This year’s festival theme considers the other side of the story – why humans and other mammals can’t be the size of insects and “what would happen if we had to deal with them in the same weight class,” Berenbaum said.

One of the smallest mammals on the planet is the bumblebee bat, which weighs slightly less than a penny. Its size is about the minimum limit for mammals, Berenbaum said. The physiological constraints relate to the ratio of surface area to body mass. If humans were as small as insects, they would experience too much heat loss through their proportionately greater surface area and wouldn’t be able to generate enough energy to maintain their body temperature, she said.

Mammals also would lose too much water through their skin, another surface-related phenomenon, while most insects have a waxy seal on their exoskeletons to prevent water loss, Berenbaum said. Our solid bones would shatter after landing from a big jump at a tiny size, while insects that jump land on legs that are hollow tubes that are part of their exoskeletons, which support more weight in proportion to the amount of material in them than can the solid rods of a mammal’s internal skeleton, she said.

Ant photos
At top, Pheidole navigans, and Odontomachus brunneus at bottom. Photo © Alex Wild, alexwild.com.

One of the feature films to be screened at the festival is – of course – Marvel Comic’s “Ant-Man.” Berenbaum said the film attempts to address the problem of what happens to a human’s mass if he or she shrank to the size of an ant, with a plot involving the fictional “Pym Particle” and quantum mechanics.

The movie names several ant species and accurately describes their characteristics and behavior. “It was a joy to watch ‘Ant-Man’ because someone did a lot of entomology homework,” Berenbaum said.

The script does get a few things wrong, however. The lead character played by Paul Rudd talks about how ants need a leader.

“They don’t. Not even the queen is the commander of an ant colony. Ant societies act via collective decision-making,” Berenbaum said.

Both “Ant-Man” and “The Ant Bully,” the festival’s other feature film, depict male ants as leaders, even though ant colonies are female-dominated societies, Berenbaum said.

The Ant Bully” is an animated movie about a boy who tries to destroy an anthill and is shrunk by the ants and forced to live and work with them. This movie also gets some ant facts correct, Berenbaum said. For example, it refers to certain ant species that tend caterpillars in order to eat the sugary secretions they produce and to weaver ants that use the silk excreted by their larvae to stitch together leaves when building their nests.

Although it did not receive any Academy Awards itself, “The Ant Bully” has the most Academy Award winners of any film shown at the Insect Fear Film Festival. Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Regina King voice ant characters. Paul Giamatti, who voices the exterminator brought in to eliminate the colony, is nominated for an Academy Award this year.

The festival will show several shorts and clips from other movies featuring ant-sized humans.

The film festival has previously featured different aspects of ant lives as a theme. Members of the ant family Formicidae are good for storytelling because their societies have similarities to human social structures, Berenbaum said.

“The underlying theme of both movies is that ants cooperate, a concept that humans sometimes have trouble grasping,” she said.

Entomology professor Andrew Suarez, who studies ants, will give a presentation at the festival on 10 things to know about ants.

Hosted by the Entomology Graduate Student Association, the festival includes:

  • An insect petting zoo.
  • A living ant display.
  • Bugscope, a scanning electron microscope at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, which will show magnified images of ants.
  • Ventriloquist Hannah Leskosky – Berenbaum’s daughter – with her talking ant puppet.
  • Tommy McElrath, the insect collection curator for the Illinois Natural History Survey, who will show specimens from the collection.
  • A gallery of the annual art contest featuring insect-themed artwork by local K-12 students.
  • Insect crafts.
  • Nathan Schiff, a U of I alum who brings specimens from his extensive insect collection to the festival.

The festival is free and open to the public. Activities begin at 5:30 p.m. at Foellinger Auditorium, 709 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana. Suarez’s presentation is at 6:30 p.m. The film screenings begin at 7:30 p.m.

News Source

Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau