On August 2 2020, a Facebook user shared the following anxiety-provoking Twitter screenshot with the following commentary:
Okay, who has nuclear cannibal ants for August?
The screenshot showed an August 2 2020 tweet by @NinjaEconomics:
One million cannibal ants trapped in Soviet nuclear weapons bunker have escaped https://t.co/QJYF8ZWCrmFood Processing Plant Fires in 2022, ExplainedFood Processing Plant Fires in 2022...
— Ninja Economics (@NinjaEconomics) August 2, 2020
That tweet included a link to a news story, but when the rumor migrated to Facebook, the link didn’t travel with it.
2020 Bingo Meme
Unsaid — but strongly implied in the Facebook post’s wording — was a reference to the “2020 Bingo” meme. Although it was fairly self-explanatory, it was defined and tracked on the meme encyclopedia KnowYourMeme:
2020 Bingo refers to metaphorical or literal custom bingo cards relating to major occurrences in 2020. Following, the Australian bushfires and the coronavirus outbreak many Redditors and Twitter users began reacting to new surprising news by referencing their 2020 bingo card or predicting apocalyptic scenarios using a custom bingo card.
On March 16th, 2020, Twitter user @bjoewolf tweeted, “Did anyone have ‘Mitt Romney endorsing Universal Basic Income six weeks after voting to convict Donald Trump’ on their 2020 bingo card?” … The tweet garnered over 4,100 likes and 470 retweets in three months. On March 20th , Redditor tumsdout posted a custom 2020 Apocalypse Bingo card to r/memes … The card features past and predicted future 2020 events.
On June 8th , Twitter user @maureenjohnson posted a screenshot of the PG Tips and the Yorkshire Tea Twitter accounts speaking out against racism and said, “I didn’t have anti-racist tea on my 2020 bingo card but I am delighted that it is here”[.]
But Did Nuclear Cannibal Ants Escape from a Russian Bunker?
The original Newsweek article was published on November 4 2019, and was therefore not exactly applicable to the “2020 Bingo” meme:
One Million Cannibal Ants Trapped in Soviet Nuclear Bunker Have Escaped
A “colony” of up to one million cannibal ants trapped in a nuclear bunker for years have escaped, scientists in Poland have said.
The ants, which had no food source other than their dead nestmates, were first discovered in 2013 were found to be solely made up of worker ants meaning they could not reproduce — how their numbers grew so large was a mystery.
On the same date, SYFY reported:
Stranded and left for dead years after falling into a forsaken bunker meant to house nuclear weapons, a colony of ants has apparently resorted to necrotic cannibalism not only to survive, but to thrive.
Checking in recently on a colony of Formica polyctena ants that fell into the nether depths of a decrepit, abandoned nuclear weapons storage bunker in rural Poland, a team of researchers led by Prof. Wojciech Czechowski of the Polish Academy of Science found that their numbers hadn’t shrunk at all. In fact, they’d proliferated — even though their entrapment had cut the colony off from any known source of nourishment.
Worse still — at least for anyone who shrinks at the thought of mixing insects and radiation — is that the ants, commonly called European red wood ants, apparently have now found a way out of their dark post-atomic prison. What was thought to be a tomb for a small ant colony of workers cut off from its mother nest has, instead, become the launch pad for a surface invasion of thriving cannibal critters.
Both sites linked to published research in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research. “Hymenoptera” is a large order of insects including ants, bees, and wasps.
Nuclear Cannibal Ants
On October 31 2019, the Journal of Hymenoptera Research published an article with the headline, “Ants trapped for years in an old bunker; survival by cannibalism and eventual escape.” An abstract provided a summary of the situation:
Successful evacuation of a peculiar ‘colony’ of the wood ant Formica polyctena Först., for years trapped within an old bunker previously used for storing nuclear weapons (see Czechowski et al. 2016), is reported. Using an experimentally installed boardwalk, the imprisoned ants managed to get through the ventilation pipe to their maternal nest on the top of the bunker. In our previous report, we left open the question of how the ‘colony’ could survive seemingly without food. Here we show that the ‘colony’ in the bunker survived and grew thanks to an influx of workers from the source nest above the bunker and mass consumption of corpses of the imprisoned nestmates.
The ants were “nuclear” due to the fact their colony was observed in “an old bunker previously used for storing nuclear weapons.” We feel it is important to point out that the location of their colony appeared unrelated to their cannibalistic behaviors.
In the text of the article, researchers reiterated that their previous efforts included an “open” question about the ants’ food source. However, the portion about “cannibalism” cited 1979 research about wood ants’ consumption other wood ants’ corpses:
Our previous study also left open, how the bunker colony could survive and grow without access to foraging grounds. One evident means could be cannibalism. It is known that wood ants consume dead bodies of their conspecifics left in masses on the ground during spectacular ‘ant wars’ early in the season. The function of such wars is to settle the borders of neighbouring conspecific colonies, but the corpses also add substantially to the scarce food resources available when the colony lives commence after winter (Mabelis 1979).
Here we report our successful trial to re-connect the imprisoned ants with their maternal colony. We also studied possible consumption by the bunker ants of their dead nestmates which seemed to be the only food resource available to keep the ‘colony’ alive such that it could grow through the years.
It appeared researchers concluded, based on past observed behavior in wood ants and the remote location of the isolated colony, that “dead nestmates” were the only logical food source for the bunker’s ant colony. As for their “escape,” the research also explained of previous interactions with the colony:
As a first step in freeing the captive ants, in spring 2016, we took a group of ca 100 ants from the bunker and let them free on the outskirts of the mother nest, to check relations between the two partly isolated entities. As expected, no aggressive behaviour was observed. Subsequently, on 18th September 2016, we constructed a ca 3-metre long vertical boardwalk with one end burrowed in the earthen mound of the bunker colony and the other one tucked inside the ventilation pipe (Fig. 3). It was meant to serve as an escape route, allowing the ants to leave the bunker. At that time, the mound in the bunker was fully inhabited by ant workers – as in previous years….
In September of 2016, the researchers added a “boardwalk” to facilitate movement of the isolated ant colony in the nuclear bunker. In the article’s conclusions, researchers explained:
Recent research has also shown that corpse consumption in F. polyctena is more common than it was previously thought, and nestmate corpses can serve as an important food source not only in periods of food shortage (Maák et al., in press). In the light of the above, and the clear signs of mass consumption of the F. polyctena corpses in the bunker with practically no other organisms able to do it (see Czechowski et al. 2016), we can safely deduce that the bunker ‘colony’ survived on cannibalism, by consuming dead nestmates.
Summing up, the ecological and behavioural flexibility of the wood ants (Seifert 2018) may allow them survival even in unexpectedly suboptimal conditions (e.g. Czechowski and Vepsäläinen 2009). The survival and growth of the bunker ‘colony’ through the years, without producing own offspring, was possible owing to continuous supply of new workers from the upper nest (Czechowski et al. 2016) and accumulation of nestmate corpses. The corpses served as an inexhaustible source of food which substantially allowed survival of the ants trapped down in otherwise extremely unfavourable conditions.
As for the escape, not only did it not occur in 2020, it did not take place in 2019, either:
On 11th February 2017, the mound was almost deserted, only a few ants being present close to the base of the boardwalk (Fig. 5); no live ants were seen elsewhere in the bunker chamber. To compare the situation with that in the former winter [of 2016], when the bunker mound and the whole chamber was filled with ants….
Researchers initiated attempts to relocate the ants in 2016, and by February of 2017, most had used the “boardwalk” to leave the bunker.
Social media shares tended to imply (or outright state) that the “nuclear ants” managed to “escape” an enclosure; in actuality, researchers created a route for the ants to relocate to better conditions. Not long after they did so, the ants vacated the bunker.
A better and more accurate explanation of the saga of the nuclear cannibal ants appeared in Atlas Obscura in November 20 2019. Their deep dive provided a significant amount of context:
[In 2019], [István Maák, a zoologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw] had taken it upon himself to do something about [the ants’ plight], and recently published the tale of a momentous rescue in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.
The ants were first discovered in 2013, during the first year of a campaign to monitor the health of bats known to frequent abandoned bunkers like these. They make great bat dens, with internal temperatures that hover around 44 degrees Fahrenheit in the dead of winter. Though the bunkers had been sealed, curious tourists and intrepid bat-lovers had made their way in, according to an earlier study in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research that first documented the existence of the colony, authored by Wojciech Czechowski, Maák’s colleague at the academy.
Atlas Obscura explained the manner in which unlucky ants wound up in what it called a “formic Donner party”:
To understand the bizarre nature of this colony, one must understand the layout of the bunker. Somewhere inside its reinforced concrete walls, which are over three feet thick, there is a small, closet-like room, cryptically numbered 12. The aesthetic of its walls screams “abandoned Soviet nuclear bunker,” with peeling paint and swelling limewash. The floor, once terra-cotta, is now a pile of rubble and soil. In the ceiling is a hole that holds the ventilation pipe, which is approximately a foot wide and connects the chamber to the outside world, about 16 feet above. Ant Colony One, which rejoices in the light and imbibes sweet honeydew, lives right on top of the pipe’s opening. “These ants are mostly eating aphid [honeydew],” Maák says. But when an unlucky ant takes one wrong step, it can tumble down the perilous chute, where it becomes a member of Ant Colony Two. No light, no aphids, no escape. “These ants are eating corpses,” he says.
After the initial research was published, some members of the public fretted over the conditions in which the ants were forced to live:
When Czechowski published his study marking the discovery of the bunker ants in 2016, he cited the split colony as evidence of wood ants’ remarkable perseverance. But the general populace was less awed and more concerned. “Professor Czechowski got many letters saying how cruel it was to keep the ants down there,” Maák says. “People kept asking why we did not set them free.”
And so, out of both compassion and scientific curiosity, Maák devised a plan. Before he could unite the colonies, he had to check if they would recognize each other. If not, the resulting carnage could wipe out both populations. Wood ant colonies each carry a hydrocarbon profile that’s as specific as a barcode, and ants will scan this to see if a newcomer is a friend or foe. In spring 2016, he took a group of around a hundred ants from Colony Two to Colony One, and let them scramble toward the mother nest. The ants were not attacked, and quickly — and perhaps with no small measure of relief — reimmersed themselves in the mother ship.
A “2020 Bingo” meme suggested that “nuclear cannibal ants” had “escaped” a bunker in Russia in August 2020. In actuality, research published in October 2019 catalogued ongoing observations by scientists of a colony of wood ants in an abandoned bunker once used to store nuclear weapons. Ants in the bunker were believed to survive by consuming the corpses of dead nestmates, and beginning in 2016, the same researchers set out to relocate the colony. As of early 2017, most of the ants appeared to have moved on from the colony through a “boardwalk” installed by the researchers. In other words, the ants did not “break out” of the bunker, but were directed to do so as part of ongoing study of their colony, as part of a purposeful effort to liberate the ants in unpleasant conditions from which they were unable to escape unassisted.