AntAsk: July 2010 Archives

In most cases anything that looks like an ant is an ant. But there are also many insects and arachnids that mimic ants. Read on to learn more about this amazing mimicry.

Ants are incredibly abundant and dominant organisms throughout the world. Conservative estimates of their worldwide numbers range from 1 million billion to 10 million billion and between 15% and 20% of terrestrial animal biomass is ant biomass. Their huge numbers and ecological dominance make them attractive targets for other animals to parasitize in any way they can.

More than 2000 arthropod species, including many spiders, hemipteran bugs, and staphylinid beetles have evolved to look and behave just like ants in order to blend in and be accepted into colonies. Once there, they may derive protection from being surrounded by friendly ants, they may steal food from the colony, or they might even prey upon the ants and their eggs. Check out this post on velvet ants to find out about a type of wasp that sometimes mimics ants but is often confused with them.

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These Salticid spiders are ant mimics. Notice how they use their front pair of legs as "antennae" because they do not have true antennae. Photos from http://natural-japan.net/?cat=35 and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ant_mimicry



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The ant Pseudomyrmex salvini (left) and a mimicking spider in the genus Synemosyna (right). Photos courtesy of D. Ballhorn.



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The ant-mimicking spider, Aphanlochilus rogersi, with a captured Cephalotes pusillus. Photo from http://www.alexanderwild.com/


This wonderful picture by Alex Wild shows the predatory ant-mimicking spider, Aphanlochilus rogersi, holding one of its victims snatched from a column of foraging Cephalotes pusillus. These spiders are so specialized as predators of these ants that they refuse to eat other types of insects. They not only blend in with ants by looking like them, they will also hold their catches in a way that makes it look like they are just another member of the colony holding a deceased companion. But looking like ants can also help arthropods in a very different way.

It turns out that most ant mimics do not eat ants. So then why do they look exactly like them? Many species of ants are aggressive, well armed with stingers and a powerful bite, are often distasteful, and have the amazing ability to recruit their nestmates to help when they are attacked. These features along with their huge abundance make them intimidating to predators and ideal models for other, less well protected, species to mimic.

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Though it looks very similar to an ant, this is actually a cricket in the genus Macroxiphus. Photo from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Macroxiphus_sp_cricket.jpg.


In order to successfully integrate themselves into colonies, many ant mimics hide out in the ant nest that they plan to infiltrate for days before exposing themselves to the ants living there in order to absorb the smell of the nest. Ants depend largely on smell to identify nestmates, particularly in the darkness of the colony interior, so by smelling like the nest, mimics protect themselves even further. Recently, it was found that an ant larvae mimicking butterfly, Maculinea rebeli, actually mimics ant acoustic signals as well! The larvae of these butterflies mimic the scent and begging behavior of ant larvae and are carried into nests by unsuspecting ants. Once there, they start making sounds very similar to ant queens. Using this sound means that they are treated even better than the average ant larva because the nurse ants think that they are royalty!

Though termites do not mimic ants, they are often confused with them because they are both social insects that live together in large colonies. Check out our post on termites to find out more about them.

The many types of ant mimicry in a variety of organisms makes ants seem even more impressive. Everybody seems to want to be like them.

Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team

My name's Ian and I have a little delima I thought you could help me with. I started an ant farm about six months ago off of three queen ants i caught in the wild. Their pretty well settled into the habitat and have grown to a number in the upwards of around 2000 ants. The problem is, the habitat is too small for the current number living there. I need to know how I can move the queens safely from the existing habitat to another (I have already prepared one). Any inside tips would be greatly accepted.

Ian, Missouri, USA


Dear Ian,

Thanks for your question. You may be more worried about your ants than you need to be. Ants are very tough and collapsing tunnels on top of them will likely not hurt them so long as you recover them relatively quickly. Firstly, I would suggest connecting the old nest to the new habitat with some sort of tubing to get the ants comfortable in their new habitat. Hopefully, they will explore the tubes, find the new habitat, and start building a new nest. You can try to attract them to the new area by feeding them there. If you are really lucky the workers may even move the queens and brood to the new habitat. Otherwise you should just wait for as many of the workers to get to the new area as possible and then start digging through the old nest. You will probably want to dump the sand into a large tray with a thin layer of oil, vaseline, or fluon painted around the edges to keep the ants from escaping. Depending on the amount of sand in the old habitat and the size of your tray, you may want to dump the whole container in the tray or go little by little. Sift through the sand gently and pick out as many ants, brood, and queens as you can. They will probably be somewhat upset at their house being dumped out so you should move quickly to get them into their new habitat. If you do not already have them, investing in featherweight forceps and/or an aspirator would be very helpful for collecting fast moving ants. Good luck and I hope your ants like their new home!

Ben Rubin & the AntAsk Team

Help! I have ants in my kitchen and want them out! How do I get rid of the ants in my house?

- Oscar, Oakland, CA, USA


Thanks for contacting us at AntBlog!

Although many ants are quite beautiful and really have no interest in entering our homes, there are a few species that we call "household pests". Depending on where you live resources to identify the particular ant species you have invading your home may or may not be possible, but knowing which species you are after can help. A helpful resource to identify common household pest ants can be found here.

There are several ways to try to control or exterminate these unwelcome ant guests in your kitchen or other parts of your home:

1) Clean. If you know where the ants are coming into your home, you could try to discourage them from coming in. This can be done several ways including making sure their food sources are unavailable (store foods in airtight containers). Also it is important to keep any areas where you see the ants foraging or coming in very clean which includes wiping down any areas with soapy water. This is not because the ants are dirty, but because they communicate with each other by laying scent trails (pheromones) where they walk to let others know where to search for food.

2) Discourage. Another option would be to block/exclude them from coming into your home. There are many products available for this at your local hardware store such as caulk or petroleum jelly, but you could also try using a very fine, silty powder (such as cinnamon, cayenne pepper, diatomaceous earth, corn starch, etc.) to plug any holes the ants are using to come into your home. It will be most effective if you can figure out where they are coming into your home on the inside and outside and block both entrances. You will have to keep reapplying until you no longer see any ants in your home. The fine, silty powders get stuck in the small hairs on their legs and body and since the ants do not seem to like this they avoid these areas. These are also good options if you would prefer not to use chemicals or if you have small children or pets around. This will not kill the ants, but simply discourage them from entering your home.

3) Toxic baits. If the above methods are not effective, then you may have to move onto using toxic baits. In most cases sweet sugar baits such as Boric acid (use low concentrations with less than 1% of the active ingredient) will be effective. Using indoor sprays are not effective. Although these sprays will kill the individual ant you see foraging in your home, the nest and queen are still nearby and will keep producing ant workers which will find their way into your home. This is why you need to use a toxic bait, which kill the ants slowly so the ant worker will take the poison back to the nest and will eventually get to the queen and kill the entire colony. You will want to place the baits in areas where you see the ants foraging or coming into your home and be sure to place them away from areas where children or pets are likely to find them.

Although most ants we find in our homes are only searching for food or shelter and are really only eyesores and do not really cause much real damage, there are one group of ants that can cause structural damage to your home. These are carpenter ants. Identification and treatment of carpenter ants is essential with these species. These ants do not eat wood, but burrow through wood to build their homes. So as their colonies get larger they need to bore through more wood to make larger cavities, which can damage any of the wooden parts of your home such as windows, doors, internal beams, or subfloors.

If you are finding winged ants in your home, you may want to read this AntBlog post: http://www.antweb.org/antblog/2013/07/flying-ants-in-my-home-or-something-else-tom-usa.html

Although ants in our homes can be a nuisance, remember that most ants are actually quite beneficial for the outside environment and local ecosystems. You can read more about the benefits of ants here: http://www.antweb.org/antblog/2012/08/what-good-are-ants-david-panama-city-florida-usa.html

Good luck!
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Hello,

I'm trying to decide whether to exterminate the ants living in grass/twig/leaf mounds around my property. If they are not native I intend to try to eliminate them.
I live about 30 minutes outside of Portland, Oregon at about 1500ft elevation. My land is mostly wooded but with grassy, sunny areas with orchards trees and garden areas. Over several acres there are at least 6 ant mounds each 6-24" tall and 12-24" across in the grass or at the edges of the woods.

The ants have red heads and near black bodies. They are about 1/4" long (not less than that but not close to 1/2"). From looking over some ID keys online here's what I know to look for that describes these ants:

Petiole with 1 node and is very distinct (spiky)
Thorax is uneven
Head is red and thorax and abdomen are black or very dark brown
Antennal clubs are indistinct (or absent)
Eyes are black
No stinger is visible
Seem to be two (maybe three) black dots between the eyes and much smaller than the eyes.

If there's a good resources that you can point me toward to do my own research that would be great too.

I hope that you might be able to help.

Thanks much,
Joshua (Portland, Oregon, USA)


Dear Joshua,

Thank you for the very detailed and helpful description of the ants you are finding on your property. This really helps to narrow down the ants you are likely finding. From your notes on the ants themselves and their mounds it sounds like you likely have Formica (wood ants). You can see images of many of the species here and here.

These are likely native species and although their nests can be unsightly on a well-manicured lawn they are no threat to you, your children or pets, or home. The species you are finding probably belongs to the "Rufa group".

To identify ants you find on your property in the future, I would recommend "Ants of North America: A Guide to the Genera" by Brian L. Fisher and Stefan P. Cover.

Thanks for contacting us and keep enjoying your native ant fauna,
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Thank you very much for your efforts and the creation of your website. I am an ant "newbie". I have had ant farms in the past and have been very fascinated for a long time. However, I am disappointed by the fact that the ant farm experience ends when the ants die. I have been on the search to start an ant farm with "wild" ants including a queen. I live in PA towards Philly and have been unsuccessful finding a colony to start with... until today. I found a colony near my work. The ants are large (about a 1/4 inch) red and move rapidly. Not my ideal choice due to the potential stings. But this is the colony I would like to have. Do you have any advise on how to successfully move this hive and transition it into my tank.

Evan, Philadelphia, PA, USA


Hi Evan,
This is an excellent question. For your ant farm you really want to focus on obtaining the queen because, as you have seen with previous farms, workers are non-reproductive so your colony will end with the last worker. Queens on the other hand mate once and produce offspring for the rest of their lives, so you can maintain a colony for as long as she lives.

Collecting ants can require a permit but in your case a permit should not be necessary, if you are ever in doubt this post may help. Before you start collecting consider the following materials:
• Hand shovel
• Container
• Light oil/ Vaseline
• Featherweight forceps
Optional:
• Aspirator
• Pecan Sandies cookies

If you are serious about ant collecting I would highly suggest investing in an aspirator. They can be purchased here or make one using these instructions. Aspirators are great for catching those quick and little buggers.

Prior to your collection trip prepare a container to hold the ants. This could be a large Tupperware or coffee container, spread some light oil or Vaseline near the top of the container to make it difficult for the ants to climb up to the lid. If you feel it necessary, bring a second container to hold extra dirt for your farm. Although you said you have had an ant farm before, you may want to take a look at our How to make an ant farm post.

You can collect workers by picking them up individually with featherweight forceps, these are important because sturdier forceps may harm the ant. Unfortunately, this process can be slow and tedious especially since you say they are fast. This is where the aspirator would be handy, it makes collecting easier and faster. Baiting also makes collecting workers easier, crumbled up Pecan Sandies cookies tend to be the best as they contain many sugars and lipids the ants like. Sprinkle some outside the nest and check back after 15 minutes or so. The ants you catch can be placed into the oiled container, but be sure to seal it each time as the oil is not foolproof.

The next step is finding the queen. Depending on the size of the colony, this can be extremely difficult. You should first start by digging a circle around the mound, carefully moving the dirt off to the side or into your container, the loose soil will likely container workers. If you are dealing with a large, well established colony she may be hidden several meters underground. The queen is often near her brood, so when you begin to see larvae and pupae you are close! If you think you have been digging for too long with no luck, sift through your dirt pile a little and see if she's there.

Luckily for you, you have the opportunity to keep an eye on the colony whenever you go to work. If you have no luck finding the founding queen perhaps you are not too late for mating season. Check the mound periodically for ants with wings, they are most likely males or alate queens (queens who have not yet mated and still have their wings). They will be hanging around just inside the mound waiting for ideal weather conditions for their nuptial flight. After they have mated you can check within several meters around the nest for small holes with small piles of dirt next to them, these may contain new queens starting a colony and should be closer to the surface than an established colony. This may be your best bet to collect a queen because the chances of finding one in a large colony can be small.

Once you have started your farm, never add ants to it. Your colony will develop its own scent and not recognize new members and may attack them.

I hope this helps, happy hunting and keep us updated on your wild ant farm!

Sara Zufan & the AntAsk Team

I've been watching some ants and baiting them over the past couple weeks. I saw a colony moving larvae to another location. Among the trail were ants carrying other ants. If separated, the one would curl back up, and the other would pick it up and continue on. Why?
Ken, Poland, Ohio, USA


Ken,

Great observations you have been making on Carpenter ants. It sounds that the ants you were observing were moving to a different nesting site, since you saw them carrying larvae. The behavior you observed of workers from the same nest carry one another when they move to a different nesting site is called "social carrying behavior". It is a remarkable social activity in ant colonies. Scientists have been able to study social carrying behavior in several different ant species. What they found is that different ant species can have a different style of carrying adult nestmates. Ants from the genus Pseudomyrmex, for example, carry an adult nestmate by grabbing it at the base of the mandibles (mouthparts) and curls up onto the dorsal site (that is the back) of the carrying individual. The eyes of the carried individual face forward in this position. This carrying style is called the "parasol-posture". Ants from the subfamily Formicinae, to which Carpenter ants (genus Camponotus) belong, use different styles. The carried individual can also be grabbed at the base of the mandibles, but she is positioned upside-down and curls up under the ventral side of the carrier's head as seen in this picture here. In the ant subfamily Myrmeciinae adult transport is not stereotyped. One worker gasps another at any part of the body and drags it over the ground.

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Here an adult worker of the genus Formica (subfamily Formicinae) carries a nestmate using a stereotyped carrying posture.


Adult nestmates carry each other for several reasons, but the most common is when the colony or parts of the colony move from one nest site to another. Social carrying behavior is a recruitment technique similar to tandem running, in which one worker shows a suitable nesting site to the other by running ahead.

Enjoy watching your ants!
Steffi Kautz & the AntAsk Team

Dear ant experts,
I found these large ants yesterday in my backyard. I have never seen them before.

No one I know has been able to identify them.
I was hoping you could identify them and tell me a little about them.
Through observation these are some details I can tell you about them.

Their color appeared to be a pearlescent orange red color in sunlight.
They were about an inch in length.
The appeared to be rather thick for an ant.
Some were winged and others not winged.
I tried to capture one and they were quick and evasive.
I live in Palmdale, California which is located in Mojave desert, high desert area.

I have uploaded the pictures on photobucket. Here are the links:

http://i807.photobucket.com/albums/yy357/noinfoneeded/DSCF0308.jpg?t=1279386160
http://i807.photobucket.com/albums/yy357/noinfoneeded/DSCF0299.jpg?t=1279386160
http://i807.photobucket.com/albums/yy357/noinfoneeded/DSCF0304.jpg?t=1279386238
http://i807.photobucket.com/albums/yy357/noinfoneeded/DSCF0307.jpg?t=1279386273

Thank you in advance,
Efren
Palmdale, California


Dear Efren,

Thank you for contacting AntAsk and including photos of your mystery ants! Not only do the photos really help us with identifications, but also knowing where you live really helps us narrow the list of possible ant species.

From the photos and description you sent of the ants you are finding in your backyard, it looks to me like you are seeing species of harvester ants from the genus Pogonomyrmex. Although it is difficult to tell exactly which species you are observing, it seems you are likely finding either P. californicus or P. rugosus, but you can see a list of all the species of Pogonomyrmex found in California on AntWeb here.

You can also see additional photos of each Pogonomyrmex species and distribution maps here.

Pogonomyrmex ants are called "harvester" ants because they collect seeds to feed on (called granivory). You can often find them carrying seeds back to their nests and ant photographer, Alex Wild, has some great photos of this behavior on his website here.

You mentioned that you saw both winged and non-winged individuals. The winged ants are the female and male sexuals getting ready to go on their nuptial mating flight. You can read more about this on a previous AntBlog post here.

On a last note, I should mention that harvester ants are often known for their painful stings, so be careful when trying to collect them. Remember that ants, like most animals, usually only hurt humans when they feel threatened. So as long as you are not trying to pick them up or dig into their nest, you are not likely to be stung. Enjoy their beauty and remember that they are part of the native habitat and serve many useful services in the ecosystem (including dispersing seeds).

Thanks for sharing your ant photos!
Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

Hi there,

I live in Brisbane in Australia, and recently a species of ant has been snooping around a pot plant in my first floor apartment.

I haven't been able to figure out what sort of ant it is, but I'd be interested in finding out.  I also have house ants sneaking in the same area (which I'm trying to discourage as they bring in aphids) and the two species seem to get along just fine.

I've attached a few pictures to help with identification.

Many thanks,
Caroline
Brisbane, Australia


Dear Caroline,

Thank you for contacting AntAsk and sending photos regarding the ants you have in your apartment in Brisbane, Australia.  There are actually quite a few helpful resources for identifying ants in your region.  I will include some links below, but I think the resource that would be most helpful is a small pocket guide book "Ants of Brisbane" available at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane (and likely in other bookstores): http://www.southbank.qm.qld.gov.au/en/Shop/Books/Pocket+Guides/Ants+of+Brisbane

It appears to me that the ants you are finding in your plants belong to the genus Polyrhachis, sometimes called "spiny ants":

http://www.brisbaneinsects.com/brisbane_ants/golden_ant.htm

These ants do not sting and are rarely aggressive.  As they can tend plant feeding insects for honeydew, this is likely the reason you are finding them on your houseplants. Here are some more useful links to ants in Australia (sometimes these links need to be reloaded several times to work, so be patient):

http://anic.ento.csiro.au/ants/
http://www.brisbaneinsects.com/brisbane_ants/

If you know where the ants are coming into your home, you could try to discourage them from coming in.  This can be done several ways including making sure their food sources are unavailable. In this case you will need to make sure you get rid of all plant feeding insects such as aphids, scale insects, etc. Another option would be to block them from coming into your home. There are many products available for this at your local hardware store, but you could also try using a very fine, silty powder (such as cinnamon, cayenne pepper, diatomaceous earth, corn starch, etc.) to plug any holes the ants are using to come into your home.

Thanks again for sending photos of your beautiful ants!

Corrie Moreau & the AntAsk Team

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