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Hi!

I came across your interesting website and I wanted to find out if there are any images available for what ant dung looks like.

Many thanks,

Cristina

Hi Cristina,

Thanks for your question! I have to admit, although I've spent a fair amount of time looking at ants, they're usually either dead or foraging: I've never caught one in the act, so this was a fun question for me to try to answer. Luckily, I have access to some other people with lots of ant experience, so I'm able to share their insights.

First, though, let's start with some terminology. When insects eliminate undigested waste, it's called "frass." This is a general term, that also (depending on who you ask) encompases other little particles and exudates that result from insect activities. For example, wood dust that results from carpenter ants gnawing through wood is sometimes considered "frass," even though the carpenter ants don't actually eat the wood - they just cut through it. Since your question is obviously directed towards elimination, we'll focus there.

Something about ants that many people don't realize is that as adults, they are unable to consume big chunks of food. Their jaws are often good at holding and/or cutting through objects, but not well-adapted for chewing food into pieces small enough to swallow. Some ants can eat pollen grains, but solids much bigger than that will not pass through the narrow constrictions at an ant's neck and waist. In a peculiar reversal of the "mamma bird" situation we've all seen on nature shows (and in real life, if you're lucky), adult ants must bring solid foods back to the nest, where the ant babies (larvae) eat it, and then vomit some of the chewed and partially digested food back into the mouths of the adults.

Because adult ants never eat solid foods, their frass tends to be a dark-colored liquid--at least as far as the ants that AntAsk Team members Corrie, James, and Steffi are familiar with are concerned. They (the ants, not the people) also excrete metabolic waste, analogous to urine, in the form of white urate crystals, which James describes as mixing together with the feces in various proportions: "sort of like coffee creamer."

The ant larvae, however, are a different story. They only eliminate waste once during their development, in the form of a dark, compacted mass (can I say "turd" on this blog?) shortly before pupation. This cuts down on diaper changes considerably. Interestingly, albeit disgustingly, sometimes adult ants eat this meconium (reported in Cerapachys biroi by Ravary and Jaisson 2002, and Cephalotes rohweri by Creighton and Nutting 1965). I apologize if you're reading this right before a meal.

As I wrap up this post, I realize I haven't actually pointed you in the direction of any real pictures. There are some pictures of meconia among Alex Wild's excellently curated collection of ant pictures, but I'm not aware of any pictures of an adult ant in the act of defecating. Refuse piles in subterranean ant nests, and below arboreal ant nests are more commonly photographed, but they often contain the bodies of dead workers and discarded prey parts, in addition to frass in the strict sense. So the best I can do is leave you with James' vivid image of a fine white powder mixing into a dark drop of liquid, like creamer into coffee. If I find a good picture of an ant in the act of "frass-ing", I'll let you know!

Hope this helps!
Best,
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

ps. if you're interested in other things that come out of ants, please see this previous post about ant pee:
http://www.antweb.org/antblog/2010/08/why-do-i-get-itchy-when-an-ant-crawls-on-my-skin-carrie-austria.html

Territorial battles



Hello from Brookfield, Wisconsin.

It's great to see this service online--yet another wonder of the Web.

My question involves small (not much over a millimeter long), red ants that nest around our home and seem particularly to like areas near our front walk.

More than once I have noticed these guys flowing onto the concrete and forming a large gathering in the open air--see attached photos.

Why do they do this?

Thanks,
Ted

Small Red Ants 1.jpg

Small Red Ants 2.jpg


Hi Ted,

These are a species of pavement ant, Tetramorium caespitum. They are common in urban areas, hence their common name. The event pictured is a large territorial battle between colonies. Territoriality is common in ants as a whole, varying by species and colony age. Ants typically protect their territories for access to food or nesting space.

The closely related Japanese pavement ant, Tetramorium tsushimae, is similarly territorial to the pavement ants that you see in Wisconsin. In this species, colonies with larger territories containing larger numbers of seeds and other food resources are able to raise larger numbers of reproductive individuals. However, food is not the only factor determining colony success. The ideal temperatures for raising queens and males are between 27.5 and 30 degrees Celcius (81.5 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit) and colonies also engage in territorial battles to gain access to nesting sites with these temperatures. Therefore, the pavement ants on the sidewalks outside your house are probably fighting for access to both food and optimal nesting sites.

While fights among pavement ants often lead to the deaths of large numbers of workers, this is not a requirement for ants to maintain territories. A species of honeypot ant, Myrmecocystus mimicus, is also highly territorial, but, rather than risk the lives of workers, engages in ritual displays. Hundreds of ants from each competing colony confront each other and stand as tall as they are able while inflating their gasters to appear larger. Eventually, a winner is decided based exclusively on the differences in workers between colonies and territory is ceded to the apparently stronger colony. If colonies are drastically different in size then the smaller colony will be destroyed but otherwise, no physical interactions occur. You should take a look at the papers listed at the end of the post if you want to know more details.

Thanks for your question,
Ben Rubin, James Trager, & the AntAsk Team

Holldobler B. (1981) Foraging and spatiotemporal territories in the honey ant Myrmecocystus mimicus Wheeler (Hymenopera: Formicidae). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 9: 301-314.

Sanada-Morimura S, Satoh T, Obara Y. (2006) Territorial behavior and temperature preference for nesting sites in a pavement ant Tetramorium tsushimae. Insectes Sociaux 53: 141-148.

Hello there,

I have a query about these ants we saw in our local park in Madrid, Spain. The ants themselves seemed fairly standard, with one nest hole, and a long line of foraging ants heading out to a nearby area and coming back with various tasty tidbits. As can be seen from the photo the ants were a number of different sizes.

Ants.jpg

However, amidst the ants were several white creatures (in the photo centre left, bottom right and the tail of one top left).

Ants_2.jpg

These looked nothing like ants, but appeared to be coexisting with them peaceably. They were going in and out of the ant hole, and were ignored by the ants. One or two travelled along the foraging line, but didn't appear to do any actual foraging. They were quite quick too, about as nimble as the ants.

Any information as to what these might be would be gratefully appreciated. My guesses would be a) some precursor ant stage (pupa or some such) b) other insect living symbiotically with the ant or c) I have no more ideas.

Many thanks!

David

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Hi David,

Your second guess is correct! The other insects in your photograph are in fact silverfish, cohabiting with the harvester ant Messor barbarus. There are many species of such myrmecophilous (or "ant-loving") Zygentoma around the world, with 16 occurring in the Iberian Peninsula alone. Unfortunately, without a clearer image, it is difficult to provide you with a more precise ID (several different species have been observed in Messor nests in particular), but based on a superficial diagnosis, they most likely belong to the genus Neoasterolepisma.

Silverfish are among a wide variety of other arthropods (including beetles, crickets, spiders, millipedes, even cockroaches) known to inhabit the nests of ants, either commensally or parasitically, and like other myrmecophiles, silverfish have evolved very successful strategies for avoiding detection by their ant hosts. While looking nothing like the ants, as you say, these scaly symbionts are able to blend in with the rest of the colony by rubbing against "callow" or immature workers and adopting the unique chemical profile that sister ants use to recognize one another. In this way, the silverfish enjoy easy access to shelter and resources within the nest and can intermingle freely with foragers on the outside (no doubt pilfering some of the tasty tidbits you observed being brought back to the harvester's granaries). Of course, this chemical disguise is only temporary, so the silverfish must also rely on another characteristic adaptation--speed--if their cover starts to fade, hence their nimble-footedness around the workers.

While some myrmecophilous silverfish are apparently highly specialized, demonstrating a preference for a single ant species, most are generalist interlopers, using their peculiar knack for chemical mimicry to infiltrate the subterranean strongholds of a variety of different ants. Another widespread Mediterranean silverfish species, Proatelurina pseudolepisma, for example, was found in the nests of a total of 13 different species of ants! Those of Messor barbarus, incidentally (the same species in your photograph) happened to be the most popular.

Hope this helps!

Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team

We found these ants below in Anduki (Seria, Brunei):

Cataulacus.jpg

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Hi Uli,

The ants pictured belong to the genus Cataulacus, a group of arboreal-nesting ants widely distributed across the Old World tropics. The exact species is likely Cataulacus latissimus, one of the more sizable of the dozen or so Indo-Australian species, known to occur in West Malaysia, Sumatra, Singapore, and of course Borneo.

Thanks for the photo,

Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team


Hello Antweb,
I've been doing some research on ant species richness and was wondering what locality is considered to have the highest species richness and if there is any literature to back up this information, thanks!


Hi Alejandro,

Ant diversity is highest at low latitudes (the tropics) and drops off towards the poles. This is a common phenomenon among many groups of organisms and Terry McGlynn has a relatively accessible piece about it here. This website is also a great way to explore the distribution of ant genera across the world. There is quite a bit of literature on the subject including, but certainly not limited to, the references listed below and the citations therein. The book "Ant Ecology", listed first in the below references, is a great overview of many ant related subjects, including their geographic distribution.

Thanks for your question,
Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team

References:
Dunn RR, Guénard, B, Weiser, MD & Sanders, NJ. 2010. Geographic gradients. In Ant Ecology (eds. L. Lach, C.L. Parr & K.L. Abbott) pp. 38-58. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Guénard B, Weiser MD & Dunn RR. 2012. Global mode ls of ant diversity suggest regions where new discoveries are most likely are under disproportionate deforestation threat. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 109: 7368-7373.

Kaspari M, Ward PS & Yuan M. 2004. Energy gradients and the geographic distribution of local ant diversity. Oecologia 140: 407-413.

Kusnezov N. 1957. Numbers of species of ants in faunae of different latitudes. Evolution 11: 298-299.

Jeanne RL. 1979. A latitudinal gradient in rates of ant predation. Ecology 60: 1211-1224.

Jenkins CN, Sanders NJ, Andersen AN, Arnan X, Brühl CA, Cerda X, Ellison AM, Fisher BL, Fitzpatrick MC, Gotelli NJ, Gove AD, Guénard B, Lattke JE, Lessard J-P, Mcglynn TP, Menke SB, Parr CL, Philpott SM, Vasconcelos HL, Weiser MD & Dunn RR. 2011. Global diversity in light of climate change: the case of ants. Diversity and Distributions 17: 652-662.

Trophic eggs (Mark)



Hey, AntAnswerers!

So, I've been thinking a bit about the situation with trophic eggs in ants. It apparently seems a pretty common practice among ant queens to eat some of their unembryonated eggs. Fair enough.
What I don't understand is the energetics of this practice- calorie for calorie, wouldn't it be costing a queen more to produce these trophic eggs than she is gaining from eating them?
I could understand making the best of a bad situation (i.e., for other arthropods that overshoot the optimal number of offspring, cannibalism retrieves some of the calories from a previous, poor decision), but I'm not sure that kind of argument applies for ants. Any thoughts from you guys?

I am similarly confused about the energetics of dracula ants, for similar reasons (i.e., the food comes from within the "extended phenotype").

Many thanks!
-Mark


Dear Mark,

Typically, trophic eggs are unfertilized eggs laid by workers and used predominantly to feed larvae and queens but can also be fed to other workers. This type of resource sharing is similar to the regurgitation (trophallaxis) that occurs frequently between ants that you may be more familiar with.

Queens can also produce trophic eggs and new foundresses often use these to feed their young larvae. They certainly could eat these themselves and they may be useful as a way of storing food until it is needed, but most are fed to their offspring.

Also, larvae do sometimes cannibilize other larvae as you mention. This system of feeding larvae may or may not be optimal for the colony but it undoubtedly benefits the larval aggressors.

Dracula ants are incapable of consuming solid foods because their mouthparts are not built for chewing. The larvae, however, can consume and digest these foods, producing a resource rich hemolymph. Many ant colonies operate in this way, indirectly feeding on the digestive capabilities of the larvae. Dracula ants are special because the larvae do not have the ability to regurgitate nutrients and must, therefore, be bitten open by the workers. Larvae of most other species are perfectly capable of regurgitation so this complicated method of sharing resources is not necessary.

Great question!
Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team


How difficult, if possible, is it to transfer an ant colony from a small easy maintenance starter farm to a much larger farm. Also how big would my farm have to be to have a full colony of pavement without 'controlling' population size? I can build one as big as I need. And what are the chances that my pavement ant colony will have more than one queen producing, I read that they will sometimes have more than one producing queen per colony. I think it would be very interesting to watch a multi queen colony.

Thank you so much,
Justin

Dear Justin,

It should not be too difficult to transfer your colony to a new farm, though you will probably lost some individuals in the process. Take a look at our previous post here.

I doubt that there will be any need to "control" the population size. The colony will grow until it is mature or runs out of resources so keep it well fed and it should be fine. Pavement ant colonies can grow to tens of thousands of workers so if you want your colony to reach its maximum possible size, you should probably make the farm rather large. Be sure to take a look at this previous post for tips on building a habitat.

Steiner et al. (2003) found multiple queens in five of 35 pavement ant colonies collected, so it is certainly possible that your colony contains multiple queens. Although you may need to do some more whole colony collecting if you are determined to find this type of colony.

Good luck with the farm!
Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team

References:
Steiner FM, Schlick-Steiner BC, Buschinger A. 2003. First record of unicolonial polygyny in Tetramorium cf. caespitum (Hymenoptera, Formicidae). Insectes Sociaux 50: 98-99.


How do I get my ant farm to produce more queens and how do I collect them?

Dear Anthony,

This can be a very difficult goal to accomplish. Ant colonies need to be very well established before they will begin producing reproductives. Depending on the species, this can take up to a few years. Also, if your ant farm doesn't have its own queen, it can't possibly produce new ants because, with a few exceptions, worker ants cannot produce fertile eggs.

Allowing your colony to grow and providing it with abundant resources is the best way to ensure that it will attain maturity and will eventually be able to produce new queens.

Good luck!
Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team


We have been battling ants for about a month now and I'm just curious if we need to take it to the next level (ie- call in a professional) or if we are on the right track.

First, some background, we live in the Kansas City area, and we've had a fairly mild winter up until about a month ago. We have had 3 snowstorms in the last month, all producing more than 6" of snow (two with more than a foot!). The first two snowstorms were 5 days apart and we first noticed the ants between those two storms.

We have a split-level home, and I first noticed the ants in our dining room area, and as I started looking around more, I realized they were everywhere. In the dining room (which is connected to the kitchen, but they weren't trailing to any food in the kitchen), they were also in our front living room near the window and the fireplace, they were also in our walk-out basement. None were noted in the storage room (where the dogs and their food are), or any of our bedrooms which are on the same level as the kitchen/dining room.

Initially we sprayed indoors which I now realize was foolish. We couldn't spray outside because there was collectively 2 feet of snow after the first two storms. After doing a bit of research I decided that the terro traps were the way to go (because we were still seeing live ants every day). We went out of town on March 1st, and we laid terro traps in the areas we'd been seeing the ants. We were gone for 10 days, and when we returned, there were THOUSANDS of dead ants all over. The most concentrated areas were near our fireplace, the front window, and near the door to the walk-out basement. I vacuumed all of the dead, and continued to see new live and dead ants each day, but the numbers slowly dwindled over the following 2 weeks. I also sprayed the perimeter of the home (outside) once the snow melted. I felt like we were finally getting ahead of the game because it seemed like we weren't seeing any more accumulate.

Then out of the blue this morning (after our third snowstorm happened overnight last night) I noticed a few more near the front window, however they were different. Instead of being small, black (what I think were odorous house ants), there are a fair number of dead, larger, winged ants. They have a good waist to them, so I don't think they are termites, and they are all dead, or almost dead, no swarms.

My question is, is this a good sign? Have we killed enough that the end of the colony is coming out dead? Or is this a bad sign that more breeding ants are coming out and developing new colonies? We continue to have the terro traps in place and have not given up the battle yet. I just need to know if it's time to call in a professional, or are we making progress and just need to keep at it?


Dear Christina,

It is hard to say but it is very possible that you are on the home stretch of ridding yourself of these ants. Oftentimes, when ant colonies are on the verge of death due to depleted resources, disease, or attacks from other ants, they will devote their remaining resources to producing winged reproductives in a last ditch effort to reproduce before dying. Therefore, the colony occupying your house may be teetering on the edge of collapse.

Good luck! Hopefully an exterminator will not be necessary!

Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team

Hello,

We are trying to determine if this is an ant or a beetle:

ant_or_beetle.JPG

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Hi Lena,

The insect pictured is in fact a beetle in the family Cerambycidae. It appears to belong to the New World genus Euderces, many members of which are known to mimic ants. This particular species is probably Euderces pini, the double-banded ant-mimicking cerambycid.

You can learn more about ant mimicry by checking out this previous post, and more specific examples of ant mimics here, here, here and here. This last link discusses ant mimicry (or perceived ant mimicry) in two other species of cerambycid beetles found in the U.S.

Thanks for your interest!

Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team

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