Ask an Ant Expert: October 2012 Archives

Dear AntBlog:

I am Eva Rogge, R&D Engineer at Europlasma, located in Belgium, Europe. We are specialized in nanocoatings, for example to provide water repellent and oil repellent properties to a material. Our coatings can be applied on all kinds of materials: textiles, plastics, electronics.

I have been contacted by a person who makes electronic apparatus used outdoors. He has noticed that ants are attracted by the electromagnetic fields. They come into the apparatus, live there, and produce excreta. Because of these excreta, short circuiting of the devices occur.

The idea is now to apply a nanocoating on these electronic components to protect them against the excreta of ants. To investigate if this is achievable, I was wondering if you have any idea of the main components of the feces of ants.

Kind Regards, Eva
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Dear Eva:

Ant "feces" is not feces in the same sense as for us mammals. The diet of adult ants is mainly liquid, containing only the tiniest solid particles, so there is only a small component of indigestible solids. Further, the insect equivalent of kidneys, called Malpighian tubules, empty into the rectum rather than into a separate bladder as in our species, so the nitrogenous waste or urine, in the form of uric acid crystals suspended in a fluid that is mainly water, is mixed with the feces. This results in a light brown (café au lait color, if you will), thick suspension of mixed waste, excreted as droplets through the cloaca (anus) at the tip of the ant's abdomen. In sum, I would say that the general description of the ant excreta is a suspension composed primarily of uric acid crystals and very small particles of insoluble carbohydrates (cellulose, chitin) and cuticular (exoskeleton) proteins in a polar liquid.

In nature, ants typically use latrine areas for the deposition of this waste, apart from where they feed and rest and rear their brood. An internet search will reveal that there is a fair bit of literature on ants infesting electrical circuitry, but this is mostly unsatisfying, in that the studies do not really elucidate either why the ants accumulate on electrical circuitry, or why they soil the premises while there.

Finally, I would suggest that it would be good for you to team up with an analytical chemist, so that more precise details of the chemistry of ant excreta could be determined.

Regards,
James C. Trager & the Ask Ant Team

Dear Ant Experts,

I have a large colony of ants in my yard (or possibly many colonies) in Surprise, AZ. These ants are becoming a small problem because they love to bite my family. So far I have tried many "ant baits" and found that they ignore all of them except for amdro pellets which contain Hydramethylnon. Boiling water works great on them when I can locate their hills, but they always return. Any information on what kind of ants these are and how to eradicate them will be very appreciated! Thank you in advance!

-JJ
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Dear JJ,

I wish I had some encouraging news for you, but it's likely you have Solenopsis xyloni, a close relative of the Red Imported Fire Ant, Solenopsis invicta. You're already doing some of the most effective things: Amdro was developed specifically to target S. invicta (or RIFA, as it's sometimes called in the invasive species literature). It works best if you pour about 1/4 cup directly onto the mounds, and re-treat every 2-3 weeks. In general, poisoned baits usually kill at most about 90% of the colony, so re-treatment is essential. Boiling water, as you said, is also great when you can find the colonies. Just don't pour it over the Amdro! It doesn't work when wet!

The problem is, unless you and your family live on a 1,000-acre ranch, miles away from town, surrounded by a moat and a flying-ant-proof fence, you'll always risk re-infestation from the surrounding area. Therefore, the only further advice I have is to get organized with your community. It might make sense to bring this problem up with your neighbors, at your children's schools, and any local organizations you're involved with. The "School of Ants" is a citizen-science project that would be a fantastic way to gather information about where other colonies of these ants occur in your area...and the students might even learn a thing or two about the biology and ecology of ants!

One critical bit of information you can get from collaborating with the folks at "School of Ants," or other experts, is a positive identification of these specimens. Solenopsis invicta and Solenopsis xyloni are difficult to tell apart from pictures, but one is a native ant that can be a nuisance, and one is an invasive ant that costs the USA more six billion dollars a year to control nation-wide. More information on Solenopsis invicta, and some advice about distinguishing it from related species, can be found on this excellent site.
Either way, you have the opportunity to raise awareness in your community about ants, so that you can more effectively solve the problem you have now, and be prepared for future ant invasions.

Good luck!
Jesse Czekanski-Moir & the AntAsk Team

Wow! I didn't even know your organization existed and happened upon it by accident. Anyway, while in Namibia last spring (2012) I came upon this interesting ant while in the red dunes of Sossussvlei, Namibia. I tried to identify it when I got home, but with no luck. Can you help?

Thanks very much,

Brandi

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Dear Brandi,

Thanks for your fantastic images!

The ants pictured are Camponotus detritus, otherwise known as the Namib Desert dune ant. This species is noteworthy not only for its striking appearance, but also its peculiar adaptation to the extreme aridity of the Namib Desert. You can read more about their distribution, behaviour, and unique physiology here.

Thanks for your interest!

Alexandra Westrich & the AntAsk Team

Hi!

I am Natalie, I'm in 8th grade in chicago and i Am doing science fair, I am putting ibuprofen in ants food and drink. My question is: Will trace amounts of ibuprofen affect the behavioral patterns of red harvester ants? I have both on my ant farms set up, and 15 ants in each, I just would like some help along the way so i can do a great science fair!

Thanks and hope to hear from you soon.
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Dear Natalie,

We are glad to hear that you are participating in a science fair and that you are planning to include ants in your experiment. Regarding the experiment you are planning to conduct, here are a few things to consider:

- How will you measure the behavioral patterns of the ants to see if they are different? There are many ways to do this, but you will want to come up with some way to standardize your measurements. Will it be how much food they consume and how will you determine this? How often the ants are active versus not moving for specific periods of time that you are watching them? How often do the ants engage in different behaviors between the treatments (grooming themselves, grooming other ants, etc.)? There are lots of observations you could make, just be sure to decide ahead of time what you will do. One idea might be to just spend some time watching your ants before starting the experiments to get ideas.
- To insure that you are measuring the effect of the ibuprofen, you will need to have a "control", which in your case would be a group of ants that you are not feeding ibuprofen, but otherwise are treated and fed exactly the same. This will allow you to determine if the ibuprofen is what is causing the differences.
- You would ideally also like to have multiple pairs of ants that are and are not fed ibuprofen (but I realize this may not be possible for your project this year).

We hope this helps and have fun watching your harvester ants! Harvester ants from the genus Pogonomyrmex are beautiful animals (to see what they look like up close click here).

Enjoy,
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Hi -- I was visiting Guarulhos in Brazil recently, and I found these ants in a tree or bush interacting with other insects. I suppose they are Camponotus atriceps or Camponotus mus and the insects probably a kind of cicada. I have to send the picture to a outdoor photography magazine and I need the Latin name, at least the genus. The picture was taken at the gardens of the Cesar Palace Hotel near to the international airport. One of the photos is of what looks like to be the nest. Can you get to me information about the other insect or the plant?

Thanks.

Javier Castosa, Madrid, Spain

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Dear Javier:

First, the bad news. I am sorry to say I cannot identify the plant in the pictures.

On the other hand, from the perspective of the AskAnt Team, you are really fortunate to have traveled to Brazil, one of the most ant-rich places in the world, where even an urban hotel garden can reveal fascinating aspects of ant behavior. The ants in your pictures are a species common both in the wild savannas and in gardens of that part of Brazil, namely Camponotus rufipes. (C. atriceps is a litttle smaller, and much shinier, and C. mus is considerably smaller with whiter hairs). When their nest is disturbed, C. rufipes can be very aggressive, delivering a strong bite into which they may squirt caustic formic acid. I had one draw blood from my finger one time, when I was doing field work in Brazil! It is one of the few ants that can do this.

The ants in your lovely pictures are associated with two types of sap-feeding insects, scale insects (round and featureless, Hemiptera: Coccidae) and planthoppers (colorful and cicada-like, Hemiptera: Fulgoroidea). Both of these animals excrete excess sugar and water from their plant sap diet in the form of honeydew (melaza in Spanish). Like many ants, C. rufipes is fond of sugar, and lingers around the honeydew "factory" to gather this waste product as it is produced by the sap-feeding bugs. you could say that one insect's garbage is another insect's treasure! The honeydew bugs in this relationship are sometimes referred to as ant-cattle. The ants also defend the bugs from parasites, predators, and competing ants.

This ant is known to make a nest of cut grass, a picture of which can be seen at the link in the next paragraph. Out in the savanna, this ant may nest in low, wet areas, and its nests may be suspended among grass stalks above the saturated ground, looking something like birds' nests. As your second picture shows, the ants also use bits of grass to build structures covering their "cattle", an additional way to shelter them from enemies. Partly chewed and glued-together plant fibers used by ants for construction are referred to as carton.

Here's a post about C. rufipes at one of our favorite blogs: http://myrmecos.net/2012/06/13/answer-to-the-monday-night-mystery-camponotus-rufipes/. Another post at the myrmecos blog lists this ant as the 48th most published ant species (among over 12,000 species to choose from). Your intention to publish these photos in an outdoor magazine will make them just a little bit more well-published.

James C. Trager & the AskAnt Team


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